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What’s Better: Lap Swimming vs Structured Swimming

One of the age-old questions of swimming; is it better to continuously swim laps or swim a structured workout? Lucky for you (and us!), we have some exceptional coaches on our team to look into this.

First, let’s break down lap swimming and structured swimming:

Lap swimming means continuously swimming for a certain amount of time and resting when you see fit—usually with little to no stroke variation or set rest time.

Structured swimming includes showing up with a plan—whether you have a coach-designed training plan or swim workout. If you’re working towards a goal or wanting to acquire a new skill, progressing with structured swimming is the way to do it.

When you swim structured workouts, you learn how to safely and effectively progress towards your next milestone. Mixing things up with a variety of workout styles and focusing on different components of your stroke helps you adapt quickly and allows you to fully recover—decreasing your chance of injury.

Because of these reasons and more, structured swimming is scientifically more effective than lap swimming. Lap swimming isn’t bad by any means, but structured swimming is better—especially if you’re looking to improve a skill or reach a goal.

Pool lanes

The benefits of lap swimming vs structured swimming

To dive deeper into this topic, we wanted to get an expert’s point of view. We sat down and chatted with two-time Canadian Olympic swimmer, Scott Dickens, about his thoughts on lap swimming vs structured swimming. Read what he has to say below.

FORM: How has structured swimming helped you become a faster, stronger swimmer compared to lap swimming?

Scott Dickens: Whether I’m doing a structured swim or a structured workout for running, biking, weight lifting, or yoga, it helps me break it down so I can focus on particular goals.

Just swimming, running, or biking straight is a great form of exercise, but by breaking a workout/practice/class into pieces (or subsets), it allows me to understand where I can focus my energy more efficiently. The structure also adds more variety to a training session, plus allows me to take rest where needed. Without breaks, it would be impossible for me to improve my speed and strength over time.

Structured swimming also enables me to alter my focus of training by day, whereas lap swimming tends to be the same each time—bringing a bit of plateau and diminishing marginal returns. I can focus on boosting my baseline cardio with an endurance workout one day, then build my strength and speed with short max effort sprints the next day. All while making sure I have specific recovery days. All of this can be done with structured swimming and would be far less effective than continuous lap swimming.

FORM: Why do you enjoy following structured workouts over swimming laps?

SD: Variety. It’s much more fun breaking up a workout vs just swimming continuously with no goal in mind. Structured swim workouts provide more opportunities to change things up with speed, effort, equipment, rest time, etc.

You can push yourself more when you take proper rest. For example, if I did 10x100m freestyle, it’s easier for me to go faster for each 100 compared to swimming 1,000m continuously.

FORM: Some swimmers believe that lap swimming helps maximize time in the water compared to a structured workout. Would mixing sessions within a week (ex: alternating lap swimming one day, structured swimming the other) still be beneficial? What would be some of the drawbacks?

SD: If you do the same thing over and over, your body will adapt and plateau. Structured swimming challenges your body by adding variety—our bodies crave that.

Imagine reading the exact same thing every day—same text, same story. Eventually, it becomes boring and meaningless. The same goes for exercise. By adding more variety, we can challenge ourselves in new ways and stimulate growth.

Some drawbacks would be finding a variety of workouts, so you avoid feeling like you’re doing the same structured swim every time. Good thing FORM has 1,000+ guided workouts to choose from!

A lady in the swimming pool looking on the right

FORM: During structured swimming, there’s typically a suggested rest period. With FORM, you can choose to take the suggested rest, cut it short and leave the wall early, or take an extended rest time. What would you suggest to swimmers as a general rule of thumb?

SD: Try to follow the rest time as it’s built into the workout as best as you can. Rest allows our bodies to recover for a brief period of time, so we can effectively swim at the prescribed effort level.

If you take too little rest, you aren’t giving your body enough time to recover for the next interval, especially if you’re swimming at a high intensity. If you’re resting for too long, you aren’t improving your capacity to take on more training load, which ultimately makes you faster, stronger, and more consistent.

The biggest thing is to listen to your body. Sometimes you may need more or less rest time, based on how you feel.

A lady swimming with her swim goggles displaying real-time metrics

Improve Your Skills and Reach Your Goals

Listen, we like swimming aimlessly from time to time. Sometimes it’s freeing to just go with the flow and swim what you’re feeling in the moment. But for the majority of the time, we’re all about structured swimming because it safely and effectively progresses us towards our goals.

If you’re looking to elevate your pool time with structured swimming, we’ve got you covered! As a FORM member, you’ll gain access to 1,000+ guided workouts in your goggles. With new workouts added weekly, you’ll always get to swim something fresh.

Get Started with FORM

Ready to add structured swimming into your fitness routine? Join FORM now to try Plans and guided workouts with a worry-free 30-day return guarantee. Join Now

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