At some point in your training you will want to consider the value of the concept of "specificity". There are many ways to describe this idea but for the sake of simplicity let's call it something like this: train the way you want to race, or exercise in accordance with your goals.
With respect to racing...
We always talk about the need to swim faster in practice if you want to improve your race times. This may seem obvious but at some point each swimmer needs to ask him/herself if they are actually doing this. If you are warming up and doing your main sets at relatively the same speed week after week, month after month, then you are setting yourself up for racing pretty much at the same speed.
And a word for you Masters swimmers out there...Certainly as your body changes and you start to slow down over time you still can maintain a forward "leaning" attitude about your training such that while real times may slow down, relative times will actually improve. We have not seen a scale of "relative" times for age advancement but if you are competing well as you move up in your age groups then you probably are improving relative to your own personal base line.
Once or twice a week add in a race specific set to your training. For instance, if you are working on your 200 distance you would add in a set that might look like this:
4x50 at 80% effort on the minute
4x50 at 85% effort on the 1:10
4x50 at 90% effort on the 1:20
4x50 at 95% effort on the 1:30
That's 1200 yards/meters of race specific training. Each group of 4x50 would be held at the same time with the times getting faster as you go through the set. This is an excellent way for you to learn what it feels like to swim 4 consistent 50's (your 200). And to swim them at a more demanding level (faster) as your go through the set. One of the biggest challenges in racing a 200 is to keep all the 50's tightly bunched. The swimming speed of each of the 8 (4 if long course) laps is the same. The only difference is the time of the 1st lap since there is a dive. Consider the splits of Karlee Bispo at last weekend's Texas Invitational in the 200 freestyle: 24.44 - 26.44 - 26.54 - 26.42 (1:43.84). And while very few of us are that fast, we can all learn from the even distribution of effort as evidenced by the split times. One of the nice things about swimming is that the stopwatch never lies!
For you exercise swimmers out there consider what your goal(s) is and then think about how you can once or twice a week create a workout that supports your goal. Even if your goal is to swim for the simple fact that it relaxes you and provides some stress relief, you can make a workout that does that. For example, how about going to the pool and swimming for a certain amount of time, regardless of the number of laps you have swum? Wouldn't it be nice to once a week go to the pool and simply swim? Perhaps you could stop whenever you felt like it, maybe chat with a fellow lap swimmer, or simply enjoy the time in the water or in the sun if you swim outdoors. You get the idea.
And if you need more suggestions, drop us an email and we'll be glad to help no matter what your goal is! Have some fun this week, because if it ain't fun it usually isn't worth doing.