It is hard to boil down swimming success to three points especially since everyone has unique weaknesses.
Some people need to focus on balancing in the water while other need to focus on a high elbow catch while others need to focus more on intensity and speed.
However, there are three things that successful programs do that lead to success. These points can be seen in programs that turn first timers into successful finishers as well as middle of the packers to podium placers.
#1: Meets you where you are currently
The most successful programs first finds out where your fitness is, sets a baseline, then structures the rest of the program around improving that. Regardless of whether you can only swim 25m at a time or you are churning out 1000m repeats, a good plan acknowledges this place then works to improve this. Instead of imposing arbitrary times, splits, and workouts on to you or putting you in a lane that you are not able to handle or that is too easy, the best program works from where you are.
This also means that the plans meets you where your life is. Some cookie-cutter programs on the web will insist that you swim four times or more a week. While this volume is ideal for making gains, this is sometimes not realistic for many working, family-focused athletes — unless you have a Vasa of course and then you have no excuses and 4+ swims a week becomes a piece of cake.
A good program however, will recognize this and will allow you to train that amount that you are able. The best volume of swimming is the amount that you can do without overstressing you in all of life’s departments, and a good swim program sees this.
#2: Structured and Progressive
One of the reasons that people find success in training programs–even cookie cutter ones on the internet and out of magazines– is that they finally structure the amount of stress given. Good plans will give just the right amount of stress, followed by recovery, then gives another dose this time a tad bit bigger. The amount of tolerable stress is highly individual given age, lifestyle, fitness, sleep, etc. which is why a good program recognizes all of these.
#3: Turns your limiters into strengths
Many swim programs give general advice like you need to work on your forearm catch or your balance in the water, but what if these areas do not need improving? You are simply wasting your time on drills that are irrelevant to you when you would be better suited doing drills and intervals that target your own weaknesses. This is why we include video analysis into our all access pass; we want to target your limiters and turn them into strengths.
If you are a beginner, there are key parts of your stroke that, in general, are common weaknesses for everyone like sinking legs, crossing over, rotation, kick etc. but there are many who do not need it and need to do more speed work, endurance, or open water swimming.
Overall, good programs take a “zen” approach to training: they find where you are as an individual athlete, puts you on your own path, then nudges you forward towards what you want to achieve.