The Gradual Crescendo

Olympic Triathlon Gold Medallist Alistair Brownlee ran a 28:32 10,000m on the track at the Payton Jordan Invitational in Stanford a couple of weeks ago. If you're a runner or triathlete you'll appreciate that's serious running speed:

After the event Alistair tweeted: Learnt that 68s felt easy at 3k and 69's felt hard at 8k. Can't wait for another go.

Alistair's referring to his lap time per 400m on the running track, where in the early stages of the race 68 seconds per lap felt easy but later in the race 69 seconds per lap felt hard. We call this progressive increase in how hard a well paced effort feels the "gradual crescendo" and it should feel this way in all sports, including swimming.

Approximately 80% of world records are set this way with even pacing or a slight negative split (with the second half quicker than the first). However, most age group swimmers and triathletes pace things out like this in their races and training:

How Training Sets And Races Should Feel

If you swim a hard effort (say a 400m or 1500m timetrial) and you pace it out evenly (with every 50m swum at the same speed) the feeling of effort should rise throughout the swim like this:

The first quarter of a well paced effort feels pretty easy and in fact it's possible to go significantly faster over this initial distance. However by the half way point of the swim, the effort has risen and you are aware you are working hard to stay with the pace. By the last quarter of the distance you are getting close to maximum effort, working very hard to finish off the effort.

Remember, this is all at the same actual speed, you're not speeding up through the swim. The same pace is gradually feeling harder and harder - this is the gradual crescendo.

If I Can, Shouldn't I Work Harder Earlier?

In a word, no. For two reasons:

- It feels easy to do but by going faster in the early stages of a race you will do damage which you cannot recover from. It takes a while for your breathing rate and heart rate to catch up but by starting fast you will slow down in the second half of the race and be much slower overall. This is why nearly all world records are set with an even or slight negative split.

- In a training set, if you start too fast and then blow up and slow down you will not get the training benefit that you would by pacing out your training sets well. If you feel that your swimming fitness is on a plateau this could be where you are going wrong. By pacing things out properly your fitness fill continue again on an upward curve; as a bonus not only are well paced swim sets more beneficial but they are less painful too.

To help get your pacing right, we strongly recommend the use of a Tempo Trainer Pro in mode 1 or 2. This will beep to you when you should be turning at the end of each lap helping you pace out your training sets perfectly. Many swimmers find that it's only when you use a Tempo Trainer for the first time you fully appreciate how bad your pacing skills are!

Pacing Is An Essential Part Of Swimming Technique

At the moment when you think of your swimming technique you might just think of your stroke mechanics but your pacing skills are also a critical part of your technique to swim at your best. Pacing out training sets and races is critical to reach your potential in the water, it's something that elite swimmers and triathletes have developed and honed during thousands of training hours in the water and on the running track.

Get your pacing right and you will experience that gradual crescendo yourself, and you might well set some personal bests right away without any other improvements in technique or fitness.

Swim Smooth!


Gerhard said...

Hi guys,
I totally agree with this article but one question regarding an open water race or triathlon:
My experience is, that in every triathlon (especially on the sprint or olympic distance) the 1st 100 or 200m everyone tries to get first to prevent getting behind guys who are usually slower than you. So I think it is essential to have the ability to go very hard the first few 100m and then not to blow up completely.
But how to train that?
Best regards from Austria

David Carrington said...

As ever, a great post. I always look forward to postings from SS. I think this may be especially useful for people towards the elite end their sports. Unfortunately I’m down at the other end of the spectrum, especially when in the water. I’m naturally cautious and hate the feeling of others passing me towards the end. However, I have found when running that my natural tendency to hold back hasn’t worked too well for me. I sometimes feel after the race that I should have run harder. My fastest race times have been achieved starting fairly hard then trying to keep up with better runners as best my aging body can manage. It’s tough towards the end but my times are better. I think in my case pushing fairly hard early on puts me in a less fearful, more positive mindset.

Anonymous said...

This is for me the best blog post you guys have sent out. Its shown me that I back off after the first quarter when the pain starts, even though I could probably maintain the pace, now I know it should hurt after 400m. That's why I've been loving sprint sets and 3 hour plod sets but am no good at 30 minute efforts. same on the bike and run. Great advice thanks. Andyinnorway.

zackme said...

I tend to take and need long recovery time between 200m or 300m, swum at 55s/50m, of bet 1 and 2 minutes. while never feeling out of breath.
Question: do you recommend to take shorter recovery time than needed in the hope of gradually cuting down recovery time needed?

Jukka Valkonen said...

The pacing makes perfect sense for the pool. However, as earlier posted, the triathlon start is totally different. The hoard is amped up and even a weak swimmer will redline the first 200-300m. For advanced swimmers and triathletes who are going for their AG podiums, they need to get away from the hoard and thus, create the separation needed. So I don't see how a competitive triathlete could reasonably start a race at their optimum 100m pace instead of going hard for the first buoy then settling into their pace.

Adam Young said...

Hi Gerhard, Jukka,

Yes I agree completely that a fast start can be beneficial in triathlon to get on fast feet but the swimmer needs to be very careful not to go too fast and/or for too long. 1500/1900/3800m are long swims and if you pace things right it can be easy to swim straight past people who have started too fast and put huge chunks of time into them. If you always start too fast you might never appreciate this as you're slowing down and suffering along with everyone around you.

Getting on fast feet and backing it down to something you can sustain as quickly as possible is the very best strategy. Finding the right feet quickly is very much part of the battle of course.

A key point I would make though is that you need to have good enough pace judgement to back it down to the right speed after the first 1-200m. Most age group swimmers/triathletes find that very difficult to judge as they are used to starting every set too fast in the pool and slowing down throughout. That's why it's essential to develop that innate pace judgement in training.

Hi Gerhard,

In terms of how to best train a fast start, for most triathletes and swimmers the ability to sprint really quickly is not a limiting factor in their overall triathlon swim splits. Sure they could be better sprinters but they won't be able to sustain the speed and stay on the feet of the people they start with. I know this from personal experience too!

The ability to sustain a strong pace is far more significant and this aerobic power is also going to help them recover more after a faster start. It's much better to train to be 5 seconds quicker per 100m aerobically than 5 seconds per 100m anaerobically as this will benefit you throughout the swim and you'll be able to start just as fast too!

Sure, if you feel you need it, some sprint sets can be good but most people get plenty of sprint training from working on their open water skills in the pool in groups without having to perform specific training sets. As triathletes we're very time poor and there's much more to gain from CSS than sprint sets unless you're swimming more than 4x week.

Hi David,

It sounds like in running you might have a tendency to start a little slowly and find it easier to push yourself when taking off with other fast runners? I'd be very curious to know if you do the same in swimming... have you ever swum a 400m timetrial in the pool and had someone take your 25m or 50m splits? At least 95% of swimmers start too fast in that situation and then fade through the swim! It's definitely worth testing out to find if this is a problem for you.

Hi Zackme,

I'm not quite sure what you're asking... Do you feel you have to take that recovery time after 200-300m? Is this your warmup you are talking about or are you already warmed up?

Good discussion guys!


zackme said...

It is the time I like to take between each sets to recover fully. I could take shorter ones but is there a point in shortening them?

Dave Copland said...

Hi, Guys.

I have to disagree (slightly) with some of your post...

In the pool, the first 25-50m for me always feels easy. *Really* easy. I feel as though if I were to back off so that those first few metres matched my sustainable pace, I'd be swimming unnaturally. So I figure I ought to take advantage of the couple of seconds worth of "free speed" I get on the assumption that it won't have a detrimental effect later on.

Now, I can see the point of a *generally* even-paced set. It's clearly no good if you get slower and slower with every length. But I'm convinced that the first 50m or so should be discounted, and hence the session illustrated in your linked video showing everyone going off too fast isn't as bad as it first appears.

And here's some corroboration: take a look at - every single one of the freestyle world records has a significantly faster first 50m than the main body of the swim (the last 50m is typically faster too). Surely all these world record swimmers can't be going off too fast.

Any comments?

Adam Young said...

Hi Dave, how are you??

How much faster are you swimming that first 25-50m? A couple of seconds is probably fine but much more will do damage... it feels like free speed but it actually isn't and in a proper race when the adrenaline's pumping it's so easy to go off way too quick.

In that video Nimal is swimming 24 seconds per 100m slower in the last 50m than the first 50m - a huge slow down which highlights he's blown up completely, and that's just the first 150m of the set. He's going to pay for that over the rest of the set. Many of the others are around 10 seconds per 100m slower in their last 50m which is also going to hurt them later on.

> every single one of the freestyle world records has a significantly faster first 50m than the main body of the swim (the last 50m is typically faster too). Surely all these world record swimmers can't be going off too fast.

That's the time gained from the dive.



Adam Young said...

Hi Zackme,

Take a read of this article, which explains why swimming at a slightly slower pace but with shorter recoveries could be much better training for your swimming:


Dave Copland said...

Hi, Adam.

Thanks for the reply; I'm well.

It's difficult to get accurate timings but I'm probably about 3-5s faster over the first 50m for the same perceived effort. I guess from what you're saying, I can allow myself to be a couple of seconds faster, but not the full 5.

Good point about the dive - I feel stupid now. Spot the triathlete!

Adam Young said...

Hi Dave,

It's well worth testing this out with someone getting your splits (or using a tempo trainer in lap interval mode) because it could be more than the first 50m you'll be going quick over... It's just so easy to do!



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