The Red Mist Set

Our Wednesday 5:30am squad in Perth are a tough bunch, they are all experienced triathletes and open water swimmers looking to improve their performances. They come to this session expecting a challenging 90 minute swim and last week we gave them a classic training set, one that distance swimming coaches have used through the decades to test their swimmers physically and mentally.

At Swim Smooth we call this session 'The Red Mist Set' and it comes with a warning:


Paul: If you are an intermediate or advanced level swimmer give this set a go and you are guaranteed to learn something about yourself and how you are swimming. It's perfect for anyone racing Ironman or doing a 5km or longer open water race. When I was training with the British Triathlon Team at Bath University we used to swim this set every Monday morning. I make no qualms about it, I hated every last meter of it and used to dread it because it tackled a weakness of mine head on - the ability to stay focused and maintain a strong pace when things get tough. Is this something you struggle with? I think we all do at some level.

The Red Mist Set

This corker of a session is deceptively simple, it's just 10x 400m rolling straight through at a gradually faster pace:
4x 400m at CSS pace + 6 sec /100m
3x 400m at CSS pace + 5 sec /100m
2x 400m at CSS pace + 4 sec /100m
1x 400m at CSS pace + 3 sec /100m
The best way of swimming it is by using a Wetronome or Tempo Trainer Pro in lap interval mode to pace you perfectly through each swim, taking one beep rest between 400s - which for most swimmers will be 20-30 seconds recovery. If you are swimming without a beeper, use a turn around time to give you between 20 and 30 seconds rest.

The Finis Tempo Trainer Pro
- use it to pace out
your training sets perfectly.
The target pace for each swim is referenced from your CSS pace. For instance if your CSS is 1:30 /100m then your target pace for the first 4x 400m is 1:36 /100m and the second 3x 400 at 1:35 /100m etc. In this way, as your fitness and CSS pace improves the session becomes progressively harder to compensate.

Whilst this set might appear to be pure fitness training, it has two very important technique focuses to it: Maintaining your stroke technique at close to threshold pace, as you need to when racing. And developing your pace judgement and pacing skills, which are also essential to reach your potential as a swimmer.

[ Find out how to calculate your CSS pace here and use Steve Casson's Swimulator+ app to help programme your beeper. ]

The Swirling Red Mist

During Wednesday's session, around 80% of the squad became irritable, grumpy or came close to giving up during the set. This is the 'Red Mist' at work, giving you feelings of resentment or perhaps anger for being pushed so relentlessly. If you can come through this set and cope well with the mental and physical challenges it offers then it leaves you perfectly prepared for some great performances in your races.

Squad Board: The Red Mist Set
Paul: In the middle of this set you'll tell yourself that it's pointless 'thrashing around', 'imprinting bad technique' and you'd have been 'better off doing some drills' but this is your head looking for an excuse to stop. Time and experience has taught me that this session really works and if you can get your head around the seeming 'boredom', 'tedium' or 'slog' of this session, you stand to make some massive progress with your swimming. After all, how often in a race have you had these same mental tussles with yourself?

Yes this session puts you under pressure and forces you to maintain focus and push away negative thoughts from your head. To reach your potential as a swimmer it's essential that you put yourself in this pressurised position regularly (perhaps once a week). My old gym teacher at school called it 'Moral Fibre' as he forced us to go cross-country running in sub-zero temperatures in just shorts and a vest!

Every week I swim this session myself with another of our squads (our elite triathlon group) and compared to those years as a junior athlete at Bath, I now really look forward to it. I crave the challenge of taking on the red mist because I know that by getting through this set every week it will give me a real sense of confidence and 'flow' to my swim training. This is a key lesson I learnt from swimming tough sets like this one when training for the Rottnest Channel and English Channel swims.

I've now swum the Rest Mist Set 16 weeks in succession and gone from 1:25 /100m to 1:16/100m, reducing the target time by 1 sec /100m every two weeks. So whilst it's the same session each time, there's progression built in to avoid hitting a plateau.

Give It A Crack

Even if you don't normally swim 4km in training, set yourself the challenge of the red mist, turn off the negative thoughts in your head and give it a crack. Let us know how you get on!

Swim Smooth!


Anonymous said...

I'm a 50 year old male who, having not swam seriously since age 11, began swimming again last year to compete in an Olympic distance Triathlon. My swim workouts have never exceeded 3000 yds until yesterday. I DO use the Finis Tempo Trainer Pro (the best swim training aid I can imagine) and I have been using my calculated CSS.
My Red Mist session went pretty much as described. The first two sets were pretty boring and monotonous and the last two were a struggle to maintain form and speed. I do like knowing that I have a 4000 yd workout in me.

Anonymous said...

Just remember it can be much much harder. My mate Lyndon Dunsbee who held the world record for swimming the English channel used to do 40 x 400 of which every third 400 was done as IM stroke.

Paul said...

I've had this message open since it came in 13/07/2012. Finally did it 9/05/2013.

For the love of pain. 35 years old, swimming 3 years now.

Adam Young said...

Awesome Paul! How did you find it?

Paul said...

Hello Adam

It was hard to keep the high pace. Kept falling back to +6. The following day was even harder, I felt like a truck ran over me.

Psyching up for this week Thursday, its not going to be pretty.

Adam Young said...

That sounds pretty normal Paul! Give it another crack and perhaps slow down by 1-2 seconds per 100m. That should help!


Paul said...


Much better pace yesterday thanks to your advice Adam. Did not make it easier though. There is no excuse to slow down by the 2x400 as you know you were on an easier pace to start. Its such a mental battle.

Maybe I should make this a permanent set for my Thursdays.


Adam Young said...

Great stuff Paul, yes it is a cleverly designed set from the psychological standpoint and that is very much what the session is about.

Keep up the great work!


Donal said...

Hey Adam,

How's it going? Not crewing MIMS for Paul with my friend Evan?

Something I noticed about the way this written.

Using a CSS of 1:30 as an example, the first 4x400s would be 6:24. The next 400 would reduce by 4 seconds to 6:24 and same for the next two. Since each 100 is one sec faster each set reduces by 4s.

But the whiteboard pic only reduces each set by 1 second for each of the different CSS!

When I do this, I'm treating it as a descending set, getting faster the whole way through, so on the last 400 I'm almost at max.


Donal said...

Yeah, I just realised those are the 100m times. Please delete my comment!

Paul said...

Red Mist Hell

Did my set yesterday and it must have been the hardest ever. Even waking up this morning was a mission.

The last set I just could not keep the pace up, was letting the beep go. Held it in the last four laps just to keep my dignity.

Does this get any easier?????????? Who else is putting themselves through this hell!

Charlie O'Beirne said...

I did it!!!! First 4k in as many years so stoked with myself. Knowing it would be tough I faffed for 40 min before I got started and as I pushed off the wall I hadn't convinced myself I would do it. Then I said I'd just do 8/10!! Such a wuss but I got going and loved it the more it went on as it felt like an achievement. In # 7 I got delerious. Couldn't remember when I went off or how many laps I had done and the last 2 were tough but whoop whoop it was so satisfying. Thank you for posting it.

Paul said...

Its great to see someone else doing it. I've off training for a couple of months and its up hill building to it again. This week will be the first time in a while. Looking at it square !!! :-) Red mist beware

houdini said...

The Red Mist workout is a stellar workout! Great work on mental toughness and pace. I was able to complete it just as I was starting to fall apart on the last 400. Perfect work!


Paul said...

Completed set yesterday 19 September 2013 first time since June. Lost 1.5 months of training from flue lol.

The climb back has been a mission. Anyway, I think I've been forced to tighten my stroke a lot better. So elbow much higher but with greater speed for the same stroke rate.

Feels damn good, did not feel good during the last set though, cursing, wondering what I was doing back here.

Happy swimming :-)

Ben Cleland said...

Hello all!

I'm encouraged by the progression possible by using these sessions regularly. Thought I'd give it a try tonight...had a mixed bag of results.

Firstly, I should have turned up earlier as I didn't give myself enough time to complete the whole session, but had a good stab in 45 mins. Got lucky with a 25m lane to myself.

CSS 1:16 from a previous time trial, but I think I need to re establish this, as will become evident.

So 4 x 400 using 1:22 (20.5s/ 25m on mode 1)
Fine, felt good, kept good rhythm throughout and in control.

3x 400 using 1:21 (20.25/25m)
Started ok, rythem seemed to stay with me but control getting ragged in the back quarter. Number 3 was my brick wall. Getting behind at 200m and was at the flags on the beep to finish.

2x400 using 1:20 (20s/25m)
No hope. Knew I'd only fit one in before the pool shut, but was still game for it in the mind. The body wasn't having it and although the first 100m was on song I was quickly losing over a meter per length and ended up half a length short on the final beep.

1x400: maybe next time.


Great set, can see me trying again and using the session regularly to maximise my limited training time.

Rythem seemed to be key, helped to keep me on track for a large proportion of the session.

Control is difficult and I can see this will help the mind set with future long distance goals. When the beep started extending away a concerted effort on stroke technique and control usually helped.

But where do I go from here guys?

Do I re do my CSS trial? A 20x100 on 1:16 and a beep rest is OK, but I struggled to finish anywhere near pace on the red mist set.

How do I best manage to complete this session satisfactorily in the future? Do I just add 1-2 seconds like Adam suggested above, and then reign it in later when I have the capacity?

Anyway, thanks for your help. Wish you were around when I was 16, would have been good to see what I could have achieved with some of your expertise back then.

A British Swimsmooth disciple,


Paul said...

Hi Ben

Yes I'd say re-test's probably more like 1:19 at the moment. What I do is reduce each level by 1s per 100m every 2nd week up until the point where that no longer becomes practical and the narrow it to 0.5s etc.

Hope this helps! Anything sub-1:20 is very good swimming indeed!


Ben Cleland said...

Thanks Paul,

I thought that might be the case. I've been putting off a CSS test for a while and that should be the starting point.


Paul said...

Don't delay Ben - read this:

Mike said...

Hiya, sounds like a fun challenging workout - prob one you'd want to do with a squad so as not to get lazy.

I'm currently training with a coach who has devised a 3 swim per week training program. Each month building from aerobic (week 1); to threshold (week 2); to lactate (week 3) and then recovery (week 4).

How could the Red Mist set be fit into a regime like that? I'm just wondering if it might be too tough to manage during the the lactate week and counter productive during the recovery week?

Perhaps the swim smooth sets are follow the aerobic, threshold, lactate and recovery on a weekly cycle instead of monthly?

Interested to hear your thoughts...

Paul said...

Hi Mike, yes, you've pretty much hit the nail on the head with:

"Perhaps the swim smooth sets are follow the aerobic, threshold, lactate and recovery on a weekly cycle instead of monthly?"

One of the beauties of doing this set solo is that it really forces you to focus on not being lazy! ;-)

Give it a try!



Unknown said...

You mentioned "It's perfect for anyone racing Ironman or doing a 5km or longer open water race.". What would you recommend along these lines for Sprint Tri?

Adam Young said...

Hi Andy,

For sprint triathlon 'normal' CSS training sets are perfect. These are great training for any short-course triathlon be it sprint or Olympic distance.

Some example sets here:

Even if your swim race distance is quite short (many sprints are only a 400m swim) I'd still encourage you to swim the full CSS sets (normally between 1400 and 1800m in length) as it's the ideal way to develop your swimming and will serve you well over the shorter race distances too.

I hope that helps,


Unknown said...

I am following religiously the Swim Smooth Book by trying to maintain my 3 training sessions per week.

Last week, I read about Red Mist and I thought of giving it a try.

Since my CSS is at 2min/100m it was going to be a long session, so we tried it together with a friend that has the same speed.

Everything went well until 3500 meters where my speed started to collapse! Finally, I managed to do 3800 meters in total.

I feel that it is not a session for me to do every week, but I am happy that I did it and I will try it again once a month.

Cyndy@swimsmooth said...

Hi Χαράλαμπος,

Great stuff- yep the ethos of the Red Mist sets are that they are both a physical and psychological challenge to keep going! You'll soon be blasting through it.

jaja said...

I'd really like to incorporate some red mist sets into my swimming. However, I only average about 2500m per swim session (don't often have time for more). And I'm not sure it'd be a good idea to ramp up to 4000m directly. Would shorter sets (something like 3x400, 2x400, 1x400 or 4x300, 3x300, 2x300, 1x300) be a good way to ramp up slowly to a full Red Mist set ?

Cyndy@swimsmooth said...

Hi jaja,

We generally recommend increasing your swimming training volume by no more than 10% per week. I hope that helps!

Jim said...


Would you recommend this set for slower swimmers? My CSS is 1:52 and when I was doing the first 7 I felt a real lack of rhythm and a difficultly to stop sinking. Ironically even though I could feel the muscle fatigue at the end I found the last 3 easier. Should I be starting the set a bit more quickly?


Steve said...

Did the "red mist" for the first time this morning. I'm a middle of the pack triathlete who's been looking for a long-term improvement plan. What I like about the CSS workout is that progress is measurable. I plan to retest my CSS every fourth week and adjust future workouts--at least that's my plan.

I tested for CSS last week and then set up the workouts in a spreadsheet. I used the new Tempo Trainer Pro for pacing. Nice. Great to be able to program for fractions of seconds. By the end of the second and third sets I was working HARD. I haven't swam much over a mile since last November. I failed on the last 400 set, so I'm going to do the same workout again each week until I get used to the distance.

If this doesn't work, maybe you guys can fit me in at the pool in Perth next summer?


Anonymous said...

Hi - I probably only have time for 2000m in the pool and am only swimming Olympic try distance anyway. Therefore a 3 x 400, 2 x 400, 1 x 400 set would work well. Assuming you agree what CSS speeds would you recommend for each if the three sets i.e. CSS + how many seconds?
Great blog. Loving it.

Adam Young said...

Hi Jim, yes absolutely it's suitable for you - you should find it a brilliant session for developing your swim specific fitness and bringing you on leaps and bounds.

With the sinking body position, you should definitely keep a focus on your stroke technique at the same time to work on factors contributing to that. Classic reasons for sinky legs are a lack of exhalation, pressing down on the water during the catch, snaking through the body, scissor kicks, poor ankle flexibility.

Hi Steve, Great work - keep it up!!

Hi Anonymous, if you have only 200m in the pool then swim a CSS session instead which is a little faster but shorter:



katharina said...

I started with a reduced set and and increasing step by step. Its really great. Yes, its hard. Its also a great way to learn pacing and going through.
I am walking so proud afterwards. :-)

Adam Young said...

Awesome Katharina! Walk proud indeed!


Anonymous said...

Why Red Mist?
What is the origin of the name?

Paul said...


"During Wednesday's session, around 80% of the squad became irritable, grumpy or came close to giving up during the set. This is the 'Red Mist' at work, giving you feelings of resentment or perhaps anger for being pushed so relentlessly. If you can come through this set and cope well with the mental and physical challenges it offers then it leaves you perfectly prepared for some great performances in your races. "

Anonymous said...

So I did it! For the first time so long session without wetsuit. I'am the first column from your whiteboard on your picture :-) I did manage to keep on timings! And I saw the mist at the end definitely. It's either you go hard or go home. Maybe not for every week session but love it!!

Unknown said...

Hi Molosz,

Really glad to hear you gave it a go!

NB said...

Calculated my CSS today and planning to do my first Red Mist next week... not sure if excited or scared!

Unknown said...

Hi NB- give it a go- I'm sure you'll do great!

Unknown said...

I know this is an old post, but I'm just getting around to trying the Red Mist. I have a question. My main short-term goal is a 1200m open water event in January, that I want to do as fast as I can. I currently train 3 times per week with one 'long' swim of 2000m in the fastest time possible, and the other sessions including intervals of 16x100m at CSS pace (10s rest in between) and 8 x 200m sets at CSS (20s rest). What I was wondering, is it worth giving up one of my usual sessions and replacing it with Red Mist, given my goal is a 1200m swim? I'd basically be replacing faster pace swimming with more endurance swimming. Seems it might be more suited to Ironman?

Paul said...

Yes Stuart, the CSS type sessions will be more beneficial for 1200m than the Red Mist sets...but of course, don't be afraid to try one!


Unknown said...

Thanks Paul. I think I'll wait until after the 1200m when I convert to full Ironman training mode. Looks like the perfect Ironman set! Cheers.

NB said...

After giving it a 'taster' try a couple of weeks ago (started with 8 reps as not used to the distance)... just did the full Red Mist set today and kept to my set times! Happy :) ... even though those last couple of sets were tough! Thanks for the encouragement Annie Oberlin-Harris!

Unknown said...

Hi NB- you're most welcome- good on you for getting your head down and cracking on! It's the tough bit at the end that's doing you the most good, pushing your body out of its comfort zone- nice one!

stevienels said...

I'm doing triathlon and tend to have a rest week every 4 weeks. Should I still do a red mist set during the rest week or have a week off? Or maybe leave the rest week for re-testing my CSS instead of the red mist?

Adam Young said...

Hi Stevie,

A red mist session is going to be one of your hardest sessions of your training week physically and mentally so if you’re going to be resting from anything it should be that!

I would re-test CSS as soon as you’re back in full training after your rest week. You might well feel flat during a recovery period. Also, many athletes take less than a full week for some recovery, perhaps 4-5 days, depending what they feel they need to shake fatigue.

Hope that makes sense,


stevienels said...

Thanks for your answer Adam, that makes sense to me. I've been looking at your new Swim Smooth Coaching system. Does the system make use of the red mist set as part of the included training plans?



Adam Young said...

Oh yes there are 60 unique red mist sessions to choose from in the Swim Smooth Coaching System. That should be keep you busy for a while!

They're also embedded in the overall training plans too.



Unknown said...

I did 10x400 at CSS, with one beep rest between. It was tough, but I think I'll do it every week if it helps.

I thought I was doing red mist, but I forgot about the descending rate. But did I cheat myself? What's the point of the descending rate? Is it because people would find 10x400@CSS too hard?

On the early sets I found myself beating the beep and had to slow the pace, on the last sets, the beep was forcing me to pour it on to make up time.


Paul said...

Hi Todd

Theoretically 10 x 400 at CSS with only 20-30s rest should be nigh on impossible save for the very fittest 5-10k elite open water swimmers. I know I would personally find it incredibly hard. This suggests that perhaps your CSS is a little quicker than you were doing for this set? If so, that's a good sign that you're already improving. Maybe time for an updated CSS test?


Anonymous said...

Just a query re using tempo trainer.
If it's set to beep for my CSS pace , say to make the maths simple, if it's 2min to beep very 30 secs for 25 metres , how do I keep track of the +6 secs +5 secs etc in this red mist set? Do I have to quickly adjust it during my one beep rest at the end of each 400? Thanks

Paul said...

Hi Anonymous

So if CSS is 30.00 per 25m, then CSS +6s/100 would be 31.50 per 25m. Do this for 4 reps of 400m before reducing by 0.25 for the next block of 3 and so on. Hope this helps. Paul

Alberto D. said...

I started swimming again recently, after many years of stop (I was an A1 water polo player).

Now I'm preparing next summer open water races (Swim Smooth way this year!), and I really like my weekly Red Mist + Goldilocks Sets

To keep things going, I've started cutting 1s every 2-3week (1:24s at the moment)

For some strange reason I don't enjoy at all the time trial to calculate my CSS (done just 1st time).

Question: when I successfully complete both Red Mist and Goldilocks (with very big effort), am I using the correct CSS?


Adam Young said...

Hi Alberto,

If you are improving by about 1 second per 100m then I wouldn't change a thing in your approach - it's clearly going very well, just keep things rolling.

Yes it should be challenging to complete a CSS and red-mist sessions. It's possible you've got a pace that's a smidgen too quick but if you're hitting the beep all the way through then that's absolutely perfect.



Anonymous said...

I'm a 16 yo female high school swimmer looking to improve my 500 free times. Is this the best type workout for me? I was thinking of doing this but perhaps only doing 10x300 sets. What do you think?

Anonymous said...

Hi Paul,

I have always struggled to do this set by myself.

After the Cott OWS was cancelled I phoned a friend (who swims about the same speed as me over 200) and asked him to turn up to the pool an hour after I got there. He jumped in the pool at the 2.8k mark, just as I had dropped behind the beeper of the 7th 400m. I followed him for the last 3 sets of 400m and we finished the last 400m set 8 seconds ahead of beeper.

Its the first time Ive completed it without Paul or Sally standing on the side of the pool, shouting encouragement.


Unknown said...

Hi Paul,

This is a great set. I did the 10x400 and made it to the end. Its amazing how easy the first set feels compared to how hard the last set feels.
I have scheduled these every Sunday in the lead-up to Busselton Jetty swim.

Thank you for the effort you put into the swim smooth website and coaching. Absolutely 1st Class.


Paul said...

That's great to hear Hamish - keep up the good work!

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