The Creative Process for Swim Coaches

The Creative Process for Swim Coaches

In “The Writing Process for Swim Coaches” I examined my personal workout writing process and the ways in which I attempt to master the art and science of writing workouts. In the article, I promised that by following my guidelines or some variation thereof, you would, in turn, write better, and specifically, more creative workouts. Long-time reader Al commented, asking me to expand further on the creative process:

“Jake, Alright, I see where you're coming from as far as being careful to separate the process of writing from the content of writing. That's a fair split. However, I think there's more to the process which doesn't necessarily involve personal philosophy, and of course, you mentioned it, you just didn't elaborate: creativity. I'm not ashamed to label myself something of a nerd when it comes to the concept of combining logic and creativity (I could probably write a book on it—I'm sure you're familiar with the wordy passion that encompasses) and I'm supremely interested in intersection of high-flying, thoughtful creativity and the practical methodology required for everyday implementation, as demanded by such tasks as daily workout-writing. So perhaps this requires a second post, or a lengthy explanation (I'm prepared for either, if you do lend your thoughts), but I'd like to know your writing process as it pertains to creativity, and vice versa: concretely speaking, how do you personally implement it within your process and in what aspect of your workout-writing does it manifest itself? I have my own answers, and I'd be interested to hear yours.”

I tackle the subject today, attempting to define the undefinable, to objectively measure that which is by definition subjective, and to determine a valid reference point for the formulation of “creative” workouts. I dive a bit deeper into my own creative process and offer tricks, tips, hacks, and strategies to maximize creativity and the efficacy of the workouts we write. As I mentioned in the original article,  I believe that what we write matters, and the more creative our workouts, the better our athletes perform. Yes, we give them the credit in the end, and yes, we know that great athletes have a habit of making mediocre coaches look good. But to say that the workouts don’t matter is to diminish the profession of coaching and the creative process as a whole.

I believe we should take what we write seriously, and we should always strive to improve our workouts and the creative process, if for no other reason than for the concept of prolific output itself. And of creativity...what is it, exactly? How does one define such an ambiguous term? And specifically in swimming and the workout writing process - how exactly do we define creativity and how do we write more creative workouts? Is it possible to define a subjective term? To what reference point do we compare? The idea of creativity in regards to swimming practice is a challenge to put into words, but we all know it when we see it. “Hey, now that is a creative workout!” you might say, without knowing why you said it or how you came to such a conclusion.

I cover these thoughts and many more; I trust you will enjoy this article as it was a pleasure to write. Should you choose to implement these strategies in your writing you will produce more creative workouts, yes, and perhaps more importantly, you will think about the creative process in new and different ways, spurring still more creativity. Writing this article forced me to ask many questions, namely to the value of creativity itself and the priority/importance we give it. When is creative good? Is it always a goal? Should it be a goal? And how often? And why? To what end? When is creative bad, if ever? Is there a better way? Why, what if, and how might we? And much start, let us attempt to define and understand what exactly we mean when we say “creativity.”

Defining Creativity

I believe it appropriate to first define creative or creativity, using a strict definition to give us a reference point for the remainder of the article. What is creativity? What exactly does it mean to be creative?

  1. resulting from originality of thought, expression, etc.; imaginative
  2. the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc.; originality, progressiveness, or imagination

Thus, as it relates to writing swimming workouts, I define creativity as:

  1. Workouts resulting from originality of thought; the ability to transcend traditional training methods, rules, patterns of set construction, etc., to create meaningful new training ideas, forms, methods of set construction, interpretations, etc.

But we must expand further and dig deeper, and here is where the subjective aspect of creativity appears. If to be creative is to transcend tradition...what then do we mean by transcend, and how does one define tradition?

  • Transcend: Exceed, rise above or go beyond. To outdo or exceed in excellence, extent, degree; surpass, excel
  • Tradition: A long-established or inherited way of thinking or acting; a continuing pattern or beliefs or practices; customary method or manner

A creative workout then is one that goes beyond what is traditional. Creativity in workout writing breaks with long-established patterns of workout and specific set construction. To write a creative workout is to write it “better” and surpass what is customary. As the above simmered while brainstorming for this article, I had an epiphany; what we think of as creative is subjective; the reference point for what is traditional ultimately defines what is creative. And it forced me to think about my own workouts. I like to think of them as creative, of course, and compared to what we all might consider traditional, they certainly are creative, innovative, different, etc.. But then it hit me - What happens when the reference point changes from the standard and accepted idea of traditional workouts to my own? What happens when the reference point changes and what is at first creative, becomes what is traditional? Let that sink in...if to be creative is go beyond what is must constantly change and innovate in order for what was once creative to not become traditional.

Of note: By definition, it is easy to be is far harder, but much more important, to be creative in the right way, at the right time, and for the right reasons.

The above thoughts then forced me to examine whether true creativity in workout writing is a goal we should pursue in the first place. A traditional trap bar deadlift certainly isn’t creative, while single-leg, straight-leg deadlifts with dumbbells on a balance ball certainly are. But while complicated and creative, balance ball deadlifts generally aren’t accepted as “better,” thus, we should weigh heavily and balance our desire to “be creative” with what ultimately works, even though it may be traditional. Tradition is not a bad thing, to be progressive is not always the goal. Eating vegetables isn’t new or different. Vegetables as a dietary staple for elite human performance...the process is not creative. You might prepare them in creative ways, but they are, at the root, still vegetables. In our thinking of set construction, workout writing, and creativity we would be wise to remember as much.

To further define creativity in workout writing, let us stick to what is considered by most to be “traditional” set construction. In an extremely simple example of creativity in writing workouts, and one that we use as a recruiting tool here at Liberty:

We have two sets:

36x100 @ 1:15


4(9x100) @ 1:15

It isn’t a trick question or a trick must not assume there is rest between rounds for the second example. We’re swimming 36x100, aerobic, and as coaches, we can choose the extremely traditional 36x100 or the somewhat creative way of writing 4 rounds of 9x100. Again, we use this as an example of our “creativity” when talking with recruits (we keep it simple), and ask them which set they would rather perform. 98% of recruits (and most of you) would rather do 4 rounds of 9x100 instead of 36 in a row. It is a small psychological hack, and yes, it is simple, but it certainly leads to more engaged student-athletes and in turn, better workouts. We would rather not do 36x100 in a row...but 4 rounds of 9...that doesn’t seem so bad, I think I can do that one, coach! And we can use that example for myriad sets:

20x200 or 5(4x200)

30x50 or 6(5x50)

100x100 or 10(10x100)

And so on and so forth. As an athlete myself, I remember the days of 20x200...low elbows, sloppy turns, and poor breathing habits were sure to follow. But I might have been able, psychologically speaking, to keep it together for 5 rounds of 4x200, and here at Liberty we never write sets featuring large numbers x large numbers. Even with 25’s, we will break them up, never writing 24 or 36 or 48 in a row. I’ve found that 12 is about the psychological max for our sprint group (distance types generally don’t mind larger numbers), and we might go a Race Pace set of:

4(12x25) @ :30, MAX, resting 1:00 between rounds.

The above set produces much better results than a similar set of:

48x25 @ :30, MAX, resting 1:00 after every 12.

Try it and see for yourself. There is something about the brain and large numbers...doing 48 is a lot, but 4 rounds of 12 aren’t so bad. We would never spend 75,000 on coffee, but if a fan of David Bach and you know the Latte Factor, over the course of a lifetime, many of us will. Now that we defined creativity as it relates to swimming workouts and provided a simple example of the implementation thereof, how do we go about writing more creative workouts?

How To Write More Creative Workouts

I mentioned Rest by Alex Pang in the original article, and I want to reiterate the importance of the work once again. Rest is an absolute MUST READ for coaches, creatives, and knowledge workers in general. I could restate some of his key points, and I will, but to gain the most benefit from his ideas you simply must read the book. It is a how-to manual for creative types, with tips, tricks, and strategies for strategically using rest to increase productivity, creativity, life satisfaction, and prolific output in general.

Part history and part science, Pang examines famous authors, scientists, and thinkers throughout time, recounting the daily habits that led to their brilliance and breakthroughs. He then backs up the ideas with the latest in neuroscience research; it is fascinating to see that the “ancients” executed these habits brilliantly and believed fully in their efficacy, long before they (and we) had the research to validate their actions. There are several key takeaways from the book as it relates to knowledge work:

  1. Strategically implementing rest leads to creative breakthroughs, higher quality output, and generally “better” performance.
  2. Working longer hours is detrimental to high-quality output.
  3. Extremely focused work, in a non-distracted state and in short bursts, is crucial for the aforementioned results.
  4. About four to five hours of this cognitively demanding work is the limit for any given day.
  5. Downtime (rest) should be strategic in its nature, allowing the subconscious mind to continue “working” while the conscious mind takes a break.
  6. Walking, exercise in general, napping, and play are Pang’s favorite forms of rest, and they’re backed by neuroscience research as leading to creative breakthroughs and problem-solving abilities.
  7. Immerse yourself fully in your work, in a non-distracted state, then take a step back and let the brain do its magic.
  8. Napping increases creative output, and many of the most prolific throughout history took regular naps (including Churchill, and then even during German bombing raids).

As it relates to coaching specifically, I incorporate several of these strategies for writing more creative workouts. Much like the thinkers examined in Alex’s work, I did so throughout my career intuitively, before reading his book or taking the deep dive into the neuroscience research on the topic. If you’re “in tune” with your own creative process, you sometimes just “know” what elicits the best responses. As an example, I’ll often go for a brisk walk while thinking about the main set for the day and what I want to accomplish. Pang points to the neuroscience research heavily here and concludes that yes, walking does stimulate creative thinking, and then mentions the daily, thought-provoking walks of great thinkers throughout history as practical evidence of the efficacy thereof. I also boost my creative process in other ways:

  1. Daily exercise, perhaps while thinking about writing more creative sets or thinking about nothing at all...let the subconscious mind do it’s work, as Pang would say.
  2. Meditation. This is an example of the extreme, deep concentration and focus in a non-distracted state that Pang prescribes, and it is amazing to see what insights spring forth from these highly focused sessions. It is not uncommon that I meditate on workouts and set writing multiple times a day; it is a process that consumes me, and some of my best workouts come from these sessions. Pang mentions the work of Salvador Dali here, and it is a fascinating look into the habits of one of history’s most eccentric artists. While drifting in and out of consciousness, through sleep, meditation...or other means...Dali would receive creative insights that he would quickly scribble down on paper. These insights became the foundation for his paintings, and if you’ve ever studied them, you can conclude that yes, they could only come from a rare state of consciousness that few humans experience.
  3. Drawing, doodling, journaling, painting, the whiteboard or with a journal. Sometimes I’ll work through a set on paper or whiteboard multiple times before I get it just right. I’ll write it once, rewrite it, then throw it away and write it again. 

    Sometimes creativity isn’t so much a burst of insight as it is a laborious process of putting pen to paper. To be creative might be to work, it is not always magical

    One “hack” I often use to create main sets is the Buddha Board, a small painting set that uses water, a board, and a brush. As you paint the water dries and the “painting” disappears - the speed at which this occurs is just fast enough that you have to continuously pump out fresh ideas, but slow enough to snap a quick picture via your iPhone if you’ve created something useful. A whiteboard or pen to paper is certainly more useful for fine-tuning the details of the main set - the Buddha Board is more so for brainstorming and quickly generating ideas on the fly.
  4. Theft. Or call it borrowing - I’ll often refer to the works of other coaches to stimulate my own creative process. There are multiple places online to find great workouts and plenty of social media accounts to follow, and surely you already follow a few. These options are quite useful for copying a workout as is or tweaking it to make it your own. Both options are technically creative if your own workouts are the reference points, for they are different than what you would traditionally write. I use this technique (though not often) and go back to the great works of Rick DeMont specifically. I had the incredible opportunity to volunteer at Arizona in the summer of 2007 and cataloged each of Rick’s sprint group practices. Most often I will tweak the main set, occasionally I will copy the entire workout as is. For our athletes here at Liberty, with my traditional workouts as the reference point, it certainly is creative.
  5. Write about it. Articles such as this one and the myriad other articles on this site about swimming forces creativity for sheer fact that I am “putting it out there” and it had better be good. Writing or teaching forces me to think and think deeply about the what, how, and why of what we/I do, and there are few better ways for me personally to stimulate creativity.

As to how this looks specifically, let me extrapolate on the simple aerobic examples above and give you glimpse into how I create main sets. First, a few axioms:

  1. I always start with the main set in mind, and never write the workout from warmup to warmdown. What is the goal of the day? What energy system(s) are we training? What do I want the athletes to learn? What did we do last week? Two weeks ago? Where are we in the season plan? What is the prescription for the day? These questions help stir the creative process and ultimately lead to more creative main sets.
  2. Unless a test set or a similar concept, I try not to repeat main sets. This forces me to be creative, though I admit there are some sets that are too good to do just once. I’ll still tweak them a bit, but the underlying nuts and bolts are the same. This goes back to the aforementioned concept of what works vs. what is can only cook broccoli so many different ways - eventually, you need to accept the fact that you simply must eat broccoli (or 12.5’s MAX on the Power Tower).
  3. I make it a game. How many different ways can I write the set? How can I compete with myself to improve the set? Am I doing it the best that I can or the best that it can be done?

Let us use Race Pace work as an example of the creative process in action. Let us assume it is mid to late January, and we’re nearing our maximum Race Pace volume for the year. Let us also assume that through progressive adaptation we’ve increased our Race Pace volume to 1,500 yards, or 30x50’s worth. You’ve no doubt seen this before...the infamous 30x50’s @ 1:30 max, shooting for 100 back-end goal pace. If the goal is to break 50.00 in the 100-yard freestyle, we’ll want to hit somewhere around 25.8 for all 30x50’s.

Enter the creative process.

We could go the extremely traditional route of 30x50’s @ 1:30, straight through, or we could “get creative” and break the set up into myriad different forms, all with their own varying degrees of difficulty and psychological/physiological implications. Through my own career as an athlete and 13 years of coaching sprinters at the D1 level, I know that 30x50 straight on 1:30 will absolutely not produce the best possible workout. There are better ways - I shall find them. And so I cross out 30x50 on the whiteboard...or the Buddha Board...not going to happen.

Now the work begins.

We have two hours. We want to accomplish 1500 yards of maximum effort, 100 backend Race Pace work. I want our women to work hard, enjoy the process, improve, and gain a sense of mastery and autonomy. Is it nice outside? Perhaps I’ll go for a brisk walk to work through some options in my head. Raining? Did I get a lift in today? Perhaps I’ll go to the weight room and think about 1500 yards of Race Pace work while deadlifting. Not nice out? Already lifted? Perhaps I’ll meditate on the workout or stand at the whiteboard to work through it. Perhaps I’ll summon the Buddha Board to help me through some options.

As for meditation, I have a napping office chair, and while I don’t use it for napping specifically, it is fantastic for relaxing and creating new and different main sets. It reclines to 180 degrees and features a footrest that extends from the base. I throw on some noise canceling Bose headphones, fire up my or focus@will music, and think about the various ways we can execute on the desired goals of the day. Let us assume that for today’s brainstorm session I’ll go the old-fashioned, traditional route of the pen to paper to create the main set. I’ll start with the goal...1,500 of Race Pace on a 1:30 x 50 base interval.


From here we have several options for the main set, and I’ll jot them down as they come to mind. This process can get messy, as you can see, and there are certainly quite a few different ways to get to 1500 yards. I should note, I like leaving “on a zero” for timed efforts here at Liberty, as I start my watch on a zero, and as such, the 25’s are on :40 instead of the :45. I spend a lot of time on this creative are you? How many different ways can you write the set? Can you make it a game?


I like a few of these sets, though it doesn’t get any easier from here. We have several sub-groups within our groups here at Liberty, and in today’s sprint group workout, we’ll have two main sets, one for the freestyle group and one for the fly/back underwater specialist group. I also wanted to incorporate a bit of Power work for some PostActivation Potentiation, and perhaps some weight belt work as well. As it were, and looking through the options, I didn’t particularly like any for this specific example, and came up with a variation:


The total Race Pace for each group is the 1,500, and the total time for the main set is 54 minutes. When going two groups I like to keep the main set the same time length and end together. Not that it would, but it avoids the possibility of any drama or animosity from one group finishing before the other. The stroke group (fly/back types) features a few more 25’s, and we might put in a lane line noodle to keep them underwater or instruct them to push the 25’s to 12.5 underwater or more.

Free: Three Rounds Through

50 @:60 With M.P. (Nicknamed mouse paddle as it resembles a computer mouse..this an anti-paddle used for tech training purposes - feel, EVF, etc.)
2 x 12.5 @:60 MAX with a parachute (A bit of power for some PAP)
4 x 25 @:40 MAX with a weight belt (We love weight belts here at LU)
4 x 50 @1:30 MAX
4 x 25 @:40 MAX with a weight belt
100 @ 3:00 MAX
X-Tra :40

Stroke: Three Rounds Through

50 @:60 With M.P.
2 x 12.5 @:60 MAX with a parachute
8 x 25 @:40 MAX with a weight belt
2 x 50 @1:30 MAX
4 x 25 @:40 MAX with a weight belt
2 x 50 @1:30 MAX
X-Tra :60

From here I’ll go back and write the remainder of the practice, knowing that I have about an hour to make sure the group is ready to rock and roll. As the main set features some power with parachutes and weight belts, I’ll be sure to include both belts and chutes in the pre-set, as well as some heart rate work prior to make sure we are ready for the pre-set. As for creativity, the set is certainly a bit different than 30x50 straight or even 3(10x50). There are physiological differences to consider, and I certainly have to weigh those when thinking of sets. 3(10x50) with some rest between rounds is a tough one, and it might be better for the back end of a 100 if they can hang on through 10x50...but the weight belts in this example set have their own effect, and make it challenging in their own special way, as only belts can do.

If you put yourself in your athlete's shoes, I am sure you/they would rather go the free set of:


Rather than three rounds of 10x50 or 30x50 straight. My guess is your average sprinter will work harder through the mixed set, and I’ve seen this time and time again with our sprint types here at Liberty and Penn State over the past 13 years. It takes more time to figure out sets like these, and a bit of cognitive horsepower as well, but in the end, I believe it produces far greater results than the traditional alternative of 30x50 or 15x100 or something similar.

When Creative Becomes Traditional

The challenge for us all, in terms of creativity, is that by definition, creative will become traditional if what was once creative, becomes the new reference point. Back to deadlifting and broccoli...what to do when you find something that works, and you want to keep doing it..but don’t want it to become traditional and lose its creative spark? Writing this article forced me to think long and hard about this challenge, and I have yet to come to any conclusions or answers. There are sets and training toys that work so well that I simply will not give up on them anytime soon, and in such cases, the challenge is to see how many ways one can cook broccoli without it becoming boring, redundant, or traditional.

30x50 @1:30 MAX is traditional, and if you are accustomed to such sets then my example above is certainly creative. But if you ask our sprint group here at Liberty...they’ll tell you the set I created above is a traditional Liberty Race Pace set. What to do then? What to do when stuff that works becomes traditional? When the creative becomes the new normal? How to balance the desire to be creative with the day to day broccoli of what works? Again I do not have any answers here, other than that we should live in the adjacent creative as much as possible, innovating just enough to provide a bit of novelty without giving up what we know works.

Traditional /// Adjacent Creative /// Unknown (Ultra Creative)

In Closing

Alex used this quote from Picasso to drive home his points about creativity, and it gets to the soul of the matter - we can all be more creative, it simply takes a bit of cognitive horsepower and good old-fashioned elbow grease. It takes time, effort, and focus. 

“Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.”

                              - Pablo Picasso

Do we desire creativity? Do we want to write more creative workouts? I believe any and all coaches can become more creative and write more creative practices if they choose. It may take some work, but it is within our grasp. Consider the infinite ways to write 30x50 @1:30 Race Pace...I do not believe in writer’s block in the swimming world. I do believe we need to focus more on the writing process and implement the various tips and tricks mentioned to boost our creativity if creativity is what we desire. Let us say that creativity must find you working!

As for a deep dive into the neuroscience of creativity, Rest, again, is a must read, as Alex is the expert on the creative process. He also delivers his material in blog and podcast form if audio is your preferred content. There is nothing earth-shattering in the book; we know much of what drives creativity instinctively; nevertheless, it is a great reminder of what we need to do to foster the creative process. And it may be that for the majority of us, we simply need to stand at the whiteboard and not let ourselves finish until we have something better, something more creative for the main set than what we originally planned, than what is traditional in our programs. It may be that we simply need to push through any creative blocks, with more time at the whiteboard or with pen and paper just figuring things out.

Lastly, we need to examine the creative process as it relates to our programs as a whole. Creativity is good, but drastic changes not so much. There are sets and styles we’ve found over the years that work, and we need not change them just for the sake of being “creative.” The trick, I believe, is to move the needle just enough that it is novel for our athletes, but not so much that it is foreign. This is a delicate balance, and we should strive to live in the “adjacent creative” - Goldilocks - just enough that it is untraditional, but not so much that what we are writing is unknown. Over time, with proper introspection and the documentation of what works and what does not, we can move our workout writing closer and closer to perfection. While unattainable, it is an aim to which we should all aspire.

I do hope you enjoyed this one and that it challenged you to think differently about the creative process. I seldom ask for shares, but this article can help many of us write better, more creative workouts. If nothing else, for our athletes, all of our athletes, please share this article with a friend - or two - Please click the share buttons below!

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