Swimming with Intention


Posted by Coach Mandi Kowal

Recently, while cruising around on Facebook I found a post on an Ironman page very interesting, enough so that I read through the replies associated with the post. A triathlete was reaching out for suggestions regarding their swimming workouts. They went on about how they found workouts so boring and how they hated swimming in the pool. They were clearly having a hard time. In a way I found it surprising, and to be honest, I felt a little sorry for them since they were in the first months of training for the Ironman. Yes, swimming is not like playing a game of ice hockey or downhill skiing on a black diamond run but I rarely find myself bored. I continued looking at all the suggestions and comments that followed.

From what I could tell, he was approaching swimming like a getting through a shopping list at the grocery store, get in, get the food and get out. Well, at least that’s how I shop, unless there are samples. And that is a sure way to hate swimming or any sport for that matter.

I came into the sport of swimming later in life because of triathlon. What I noticed right away is that I brought the same approach to my swimming as I have to all of my athletic endeavors. For me it’s about the process and I see many of my workouts as a ‘game’. How do I win? Time and time again it’s about working out with intention. I find it incredibly helpful to know the purpose of my workouts or to create a purpose if it’s not clear.

For example, if I’m to complete a 4 x 200 descend set then I want to get faster with each 200. While swimming each 200 I create specific focus points along the way to make sure I hit the goal. Examples of this might be to keep my head down on my streamline off the wall, wait to breathe 2-3 strokes after breaking out of streamline, keep my left elbow high as I pull through, keep my eyes down, stay strong in the third 50, etc.  I use these adjustments to affect my speed in order to descend the set.  And to me, this is what makes the workout fun.

I know that when you are that engaged with the workout you’re the one in the driver's seat to make changes. You start to notice what technical changes make you faster and/or more efficient. It’s also a great opportunity to celebrate those small victories which in turn raises your confidence.

I remember addressing this exact approach with my triathlon group last spring. They were relatively new to the sport and I was trying to get them to use the clock to as an evaluation tool. For some reason this group just would not pay attention to their speed, yet insisted that they weren’t swimming well.  At one of our earlier swim sessions, I planned for us to do 8 x 100 at race speed. As I suspected, they came in after the first 100 and did not look at the clock or their watches. They came in after the 2nd 100 and I started to ask what their times were for the first two 100’s and no one knew their times. Needless to say they were a bit surprised and a little embarrassed. That’s when I stopped the workout to remind them of the ways to monitor and execute each workout. And as a group of novice swimmers, I really felt like they were missing out on a chance to see how they were getting better. 

The same holds true for younger athletes as well. Just last week, I had my junior group (6-8 yr olds) in the pool for a session. To be clear, I see them once a week and they are basically novices. We work a lot on breath control and body positioning by repeating drills to imprint the proper mechanics. This can get a bit monotonous so I have to get creative to keep their attention and ensure progress. Since this was our 12th and final class of the session I knew I had to up the ante a bit to make the session effective. I had to provide enough incentive so they would execute their drills with intention. So I announced that if they did 10 min of quality work then we would head over to the climbing wall for 5 min and we would repeat this pattern for the remainder of our practice. Well, that was a game changer! I wish I would have videotaped the class. They were, hands down, the best group I had worked with all week.  They clearly swam with intention. It was rewarding for everyone and the group ended feeling confident and happy.

This can be applied to running and biking as well. As an athlete, take the time to understand what the purpose of the workout is, be mentally engaged while working out, and start to enjoy the benefits from having more intention.

I leave you with this…Swim with intention, to be a catalyst for change, and remember that ‘improvement breeds motivation’. Motivation is what keeps you coming back because it enhances the entire process.


Mandi Kowal is a USAT Level I and Youth/Junior Coach, an ASCA Level II certified Coach and recently completed the Hunter Allen Power Based Certification. She has 31 years of coaching experience and has coached athletes to success at the regional, national and world level. After coaching for nearly 28 years she started up her coaching business instructing 100’s of youth and masters swimmers. In addition, she opened up the only CompuTrainer studio in the area. As an athlete, she has numerous top finishes in many sports including triathlon, collegiate rowing, and running. She is motivated by working together with her athletes to help them achieve their goals. Learn more about Coach Mandi Kowal here

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