AGUA Masters Coach Matt DonovanFor the past four years, AGUA Masters coach Matt Donovan has had the honor of coaching alongside Olympic and University of Southern California head coach Dave Salo. He goes to the West Coast for about a month during the summer and works with the staff and athletes from Salo Swim Camp, the varsity team at USC, and the Trojan Swim Club. Hear, from his perspective, the key takeaways from his experiences.

First, why do we swim?

  • For fun
  • For exercise
  • To race


Each of these items should factor into your training. However, the weight of each category varies from person to person. If you’re swimming for fun or fitness, there are a variety of ways you can pass the time. But if racing is the primary reason you get in the pool, then you should always be doing race pace training.


Now, for example, a 10x200 freestyle set does not prepare you to race the 200 freestyle; it prepares you to race the 2,000 freestyle. The question you must ask yourself is, “At what point during the course of the 10x200 is your body going at the speed you will be going on race day?” The answer is never, if you’re following old school training mentalities.


The human body is the most adaptable animal on the planet. There are humans that live at the Arctic Circle and humans in the Amazon jungle. We adapt to our surroundings, and training is no different. If you tell your body each day to go at a certain pace, then that is the pace you will also swim on race day.


Let’s say your goal is to break 2:10 in the 200 freestyle. Think about what your pace would be on a set of 10x200. In most cases, your speed will be significantly slower than 2:09.99. There are better ways to train to reach that goal.


  1. Broken swims: Split your 10x200 set into three speeds. 50 yards at race pace with a 10-second rest, 10 yards at a comfortable pace with a 15-second rest, and finish the set with 50 yards at race pace.
  2. Using fins and paddles: Using equipment is not cheating your workout. Our cardiovascular system does not know whether we are using fins. With fins and paddles, you can train your cardiovascular system to work at race pace for a longer period of time.
  3. Shorter sets and more sets: If your goal is to break 2:10, it is not effective to do a set that lasts 30 to 45 minutes. Your body will hit a plateau and your form will be compromised. Shorter, faster sets are a more efficient use of your time.


One of the most interesting discoveries during my time in California is that all levels of swimmers, from beginners in the day camp to Olympians, do the same type of workout. If your technique is already strong, no matter your swim level, you have to be disciplined to push your race pace in practice to get faster.  


Have you ever wondered what Usain Bolt’s time is in the 5K or mile? No one knows because he has never raced it. His race is over in under 10 seconds, so why would he do something that is 30 times longer than his actual race and at a pace slower than he would ever want to run?   


How does this apply to distance swimming? Some say Coach Salo is only a sprint coach. But at USC, everyone is a sprinter—either a short, mid, or long sprinter. The longest race in a pool is 1,650 yards or 1,500 meters. Comparatively, in terms of time, that’s about the equivalent of a 5K run. For experienced runners, you can push cardiovascular system in a 5K, similarly to how you can push your cardio in a 1,500-meter race.


One of the reasons why I love learning from Coach Salo is because he is an open book and wants to further the sport in every way that he can. He does not hide his workouts, but instead he puts them out there for anyone to learn from and use. Follow him on Instagram or Twitter, and read his article “Swim Like the Cheetah Runs” to learn more about his training philosophy. I would love to hear your thoughts and questions. You can reach me at


Happy swimming!


-Matt Donovan