Get Unusual in Your Water Workouts with IM

By Kim Brackin – July 1, 2013
Photo by Stacy Berg

As I wrote in my April article, I am initiating each editorial with an attitude of gratitude; it’s this attitude that fuels my passion to live life to the fullest each day. I am probably like most of you reading this: When I get in the pool, I’m swimming primarily for fitness and enjoyment, so why torture myself with butterfly, backstroke, and breaststroke? Here’s why—I’m grateful for the opportunity to be mentally and physically tougher. I look at training the individual medley (IM) as another way to get out of my comfort zone and challenge my body in variety of ways.

Besides garnering sighs of admiration and looks of jealousy from fellow swimmers, training IM bring benefits in many other ways.

Recruiting and building a variety of muscle groups.

You can imagine the different muscles engaged when swimming butterfly and breaststroke but, until you do it, you won’t really know! Primarily swimming freestyle relies heavily on the pectoral, scapula, and lattisimus dorsi muscles (one of the reasons you see swimmers with rounded shoulders and “hunched” back), as well as the quadriceps. If you add just a little bit of IM to your workouts, even a couple of times a week, you’ll force your body to recruit a variety of different muscles groups: deltoids, lumbar, abductors, adductors, and hamstrings.  These new muscle groups will soon adapt to being “called up” and you’ll see rapid improvement in your IM swimming, in addition to some toning in new areas! Training breaststroke and doing underwater pullouts off each wall compels you to hold your breath when tired which, in turn, challenges your lung capacity and mental toughness. Training butterfly challenges your coordination and strength, and working backstroke challenges your stroke tempo and your mind, since you won’t always know exactly where you are in the pool.

Improving motivation.

By training different strokes, you will likely begin to see improvement in other areas of your swimming. This new strength and confidence will permeate your workouts overall. Training something different and new also keeps you mentally fresh, so you’ll enjoy going back to the pool to create new challenges. One of the major complaints I hear about the sport is its monotony, which is why I always encourage swimmers to change strokes, kick, pull, use equipment, drill, and train with a partner or a team.

Training IM—tips and workouts.

  • Negative split: If swimming a 200 IM, try to make the second 25 faster than the first; for a 400 IM, make the second 50 faster than the first. In other words…build into it. Build three cycles off the wall: Changing muscle groups can be confusing and hard on the body, so as you transition from fly to back, back to breast, and breast to free, build the first few strokes, each stronger than the last, and then hold steady. With about a quarter of the distance to go, begin to pick up your tempo so that you finish strong and with good tempo; compare it to changing gears as you climb a steep hill.
  • Conserve your legs: Particularly on the butterfly (the first stroke), you’ll gain a bit more energy by conserving your legs. Swim more from the body, preserving your legs for the breaststroke and finishing leg of freestyle.
  • Cover all aspects of the stroke: Don’t just swim it—you need to drill it, kick it, sprint it, and pull it (maybe not fly, if you aren’t a seasoned swimmer).
  • Train two strokes together: Do some sets that involve just fly and back or just back and breast. You don’t always have to swim an entire IM. You can also mix up the order (50 fly and 50 breast). I have a coaching friend who loves to do “free IM” sets in which the fly is replaced by free. This set can give a great indicator of how fast you might actually go if you were to race the same distance.
  • Modify: As I am getting into shape, I can’t always do a lot of fly work, so I kick or drill the fly at a strong effort and swim the other three strokes. Plan it in, though, and don’t just start drilling mid-set—stick to your workout and build up your mental toughness.

Example IM-Based Workout
300 as 75 free/25 stroke drill in reverse IM order (breast, backstroke, then fly)
200 IM as 25 drill/25 swim
100 IM kick
6 x 150s: 50 stroke drill/50 free/50 flutter kick on your back STRONG/rest: 15–20 seconds

Main Set

(to shorten the workout, just do one round of each to make it 1,050 yards instead of 2,100)


1 x 150: 25 fly as three kicks–1pull/50 backstroke/25 breast with flutter kick/50 free (80% effort) on rest: 20
1 x 200 free, hold smooth on rest: 20


1 x 150 as: 25 fly/50 bk/25 breast/50 free (85% effort) on rest: 30
1 x 200 free hold smooth on rest: 30


1 x 150 as: 50 fly/50 bk/50 breast (75% effort), working transition between each stroke on rest: 40
1 x 200 free strong (90+% effort) on rest: 40


400 IM as drill/kick/drill/swim; maximum distance per stroke: 4000
Stroke Drills and Pointers


3 right arm only/3 left arm only/2 full strokes
3 kicks in streamline—one full cycle focusing on a leg-driven stroke
Fly has two downward kicks/cycle: one as your hands enter, and one as they exit. Try to breathe every other stroke to help hips stay high.


Right or left arm only—concentrate on rotating to both the working and non-working side
Spin drill—while sitting up in the stroke, take eight to 10 strokes, turning over as fast as you can. This works on great hand speed and accelerating into your catch.
Backstroke requires a fast, steady, six-beat kick, so working on kicking on your back will be very important.


Breaststroke arms with a flutter kick—focus on driving shoulders, elbows, and then hands forward quickly…lunge forward into an almost streamline position.
3 kicks in streamline—one full cycle teaches you to hold a good line and maximize your kick.
Glide between each stroke; the best breaststrokers in the world don’t swim harder, they have the best efficiency between stroke cycles.


Right or left arm only—concentrate on rotating to both the working and non-working side
Long Dog Drill—no above water recovery…just slide your arms to the forward position under the water; focus on setting up a high elbow catch and connecting it to your hip drive as you pull.
To maintain a balanced position in freestyle (hips high), keep your eyes looking about 65 degrees downward and lean into the stroke from your sternum.

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