"But I Was Just Chasing Ray!"

Last week with the Swim Smooth Squad in Perth, we conducted a 200m and a 400m timetrial to calculate each swimmer's threshold (or CSS) pace. This threshold pace is the speed they should be able to sustain over 1500m in a race.

We were lucky enough to have eight coaches on the pool deck so that all 112 swimmers who swam the test (over three sessions) got their times individually recorded. Not only that but during both the 200m and 400m swims, we recorded their first 100m split to compare the speed they started versus their overall time to assess how well they paced things out. All the timetrials were from a push (not a dive).

Even if you're not a numbers person bear with us here, there's some really useful things we can learn from the results.

400m Timetrial Pacing

To keep things simple, let's look at their 400m timetrials and compare the speed they swam the first 100m with the speed they swam the last 300m (in the left hand columns below). Remember the idea of a timetrial is to swim the overall distance as fast as possible to get the best overall time.

Every swimmer but one slowed down after the first 100m and some of the drop-offs in speed we saw where huge. The majority of the squad were at least 5 seconds per 100m slower but many were 10, 20 or ever 25 seconds slower per 100m! :

To help visualise what this means, we calculated how each swimmer would have swum if they had kept up the same speed after the first 100m and how many meters they ended up behind that 'virtual swimmer' in their real swim. That's the right hand columns above, showing most swimmers ended up around 20m behind their virtual selves and many 30 to 70m behind!

If these swimmers had started off a few seconds slower over the first 100m, they would have sustained a much faster pace and swam much quicker overall as a result. For the guys in the red-zone above, they might have swum a whole minute quicker over the 400m by pacing things out better!

It's important to appreciate that despite most of the squad swimming with poor pacing (to a greater or lesser extent) most improved their speed between 3 and 5% since July - imagine what they could achieve by pacing things out correctly.

"But I Was Just Chasing Ray!"

Stopwatches at the ready: The coaches get ready
to start the timetrials with the 9:30am squad.
Megan joined the squad less than 18 months ago and in her first video analysis session with us was swimming around 2:15/100m. 10 weeks ago Megan's CSS pace was down to 1:45/100m (a quantum leap!) and last week she tested at 1:41/100m - an improvement which would save her over 1 minute per mile.

But is Megan in the 20% who paced things brilliantly last week? Actually no! She went through the first 100m in 1:32 but fell away to 1:37/100m for the last 300m. When we pointed this out to Megan she replied "But I was just chasing Ray!". Could this same competitive drive also be costing you during your races and training sets?

Consistent Cobie

Cobie is one of the most consistent swimmers in the squad and as a result she's improving at a huge rate of knots. Out of choice (!) Cobie swam in all three of the squad sessions where we performed the 200 and 400m timetrials and so she had three goes at it.

Cobie's CSS worked out at 1:59.5 on Wednesday, 1:51.5 on Thursday and 1:53.5 on Friday - all a huge improvement on her CSS in July of 2:11.5. What can we take from this though? Well Cobie's best performance came on Thursday night when coach Sally suggested that she should "treat it like a training session" given that she'd already done the test 36hrs previously. The result? Much less stress, better pacing, and a significantly faster result!

Sometimes we build these things up into something they're not - a timetrial is only ever a gauge of where you're at, right here, right now - nothing more, nothing less. Don't fear them, embrace them for the value and insight they offer.

World Record Holder Sun Yang

So how do these performances compare to a great swimmers? Let's look at Sun Yang's 50m splits during his mighty 1500m world record at the London Olympics:

27.09, 28.81, 29.46, 29.05, 29.35, 28.97, 29.53, 29.34, 29.23, 28.89, 29.26, 29.27, 29.25, 29.34, 29.41, 29.3, 29.49, 29.38, 29.46, 29.32, 29.42, 29.21, 29.54, 29.37, 29.17, 29.19, 29.39, 29.14, 27.81 and 25.68s

Obviously he gains a couple of seconds from the dive at the start and is able to lift his effort to sprint the last 100m but his judgement for the rest of the swim is incredible, with every 50m within a range of 0.7 seconds. Amazing pacing skills! Do you think you could do that? How about with the adrenaline of an Olympic final in your system?

These figures actually give us an insight into how Sun got himself into such supreme shape for that swim - you can imagine how precise he was through all of his hard sets in training.

Poor Pacing Lowers The Quality Of Your Training

Not only does poor pacing harm your race performances but it also harms your training as you fade during training sessions. By learning to pace things out correctly you will improve the quality of your training and get bigger fitness improvements as a result. You still want to train hard but aim to sustain a strong effort through your sessions instead of starting too fast and fading away (or blowing up!) every session.

For more information on how this should feel, see our Gradual Crescendo blog post.

80% Of You Do The Same?

Looking at the figures from the squad, over 80% paced things quite poorly. We can easily extend that to the readership of this blog and say with 80% confidence your own pacing is pretty poor too and needs some work. Fix this by pacing out your swim well (like Sun Yang) and you'll almost certainly set some personal best times straight away. Even better, those PBs will keep on coming over the following weeks and months as you get the fitness improvements from the improved quality of your training.

One of the best ways you can develop your pacing skills is with a Finis Tempo Trainer Pro - a brilliant gadget that will beep a pace to you as you swim. Set it to the speed you want to swim and simply pace yourself so you turn and push-off the end of the pool when the beeper goes and you too will have perfect pacing.

We'll leave the last word to Nathan:

"I managed a PB for the 400 so I'm stoked. I thought I would do around 7:00 and managed 6:51 so I'm thrilled. I always worry about blowing up after the first 100 and knew I'd done the first 100 fast so I backed off consciously in the 2nd, much as I wanted to keep up with Shane (who smashed it!). Then I felt like I built up my pace into the 3rd and 4th 100s."

Swim Smooth!


Anonymous said...

Swim Smooth Coaches:

Thanks for the post this week! It gives me the opportunity to ask a question that has been nagging me for the past 3 years since I discovered your program and started trying to follow your recommendeations for training sets.

I inevitably see the very drop off that you talk about in today's post when I swim. I can even notice it in the 50 m splits... My first 50 can be as fast as 0:38 if I am really pushing it, but more typically it is around 0:42. My second 50 is typically 0:46, and then I settle into my pace of 0:49-0:50 per 50 m. If I try to ease back on my first 100 m pacing, it actually SLOWS my 400+ m times! I still end up swimming all the rest of my 50's at the 0:49-0:50 pace. Should I really be trying to force myself to slow down my first 100 (and thereby slow my 400 and 200 m times) so that I force myself to pace my swims better?

To put things in perspective, I can do a "Blue Ribband" set of 20x100m @1:50 and average 1:32 per 100 m +/- 0:04.

Your thoughts?

Carl (Minnesota, USA)

Oliver K said...

Hi Carl,

my times are rather similar (though for the 20x100m I need more rest --- I'm used to it). Some thoughts:

I wonder whether there can be any real comparison between a racing machine at the peak of its powers, like Sun Yang, and a medium amateur like, say, me. I tend to believe there can't.

I believe that a swimmer "like me" (which might include Carl) will inevitably swim fastest the, say, 200m or 400m, when going "too fast" at the beginning. What I don't gain at the beginning I can not make up at the end. Carl's numbers say roughly the first 100m he makes 10s good. At least for me it's simply not possible to just swim the remaining 300m each 100m 3.3s faster; I'm not a racing machine who can speed up or slow down at will, but there seem to be fixed thresholds.

I have little doubt that the more professional one gets, the more even one gets; one reason I believe is that then one has a good reserve of power. But for the best times of an amateur different laws should apply. Perhaps there are different types of swimmers, but I also know from any of my time trials, that if I don't go really hard at the beginning, which forces me to give much, I can't regain that time; the muscle fatigue/soreness will come anyway, with the same results, whether I go the first 100m faster or not (sure, not sprinting). My feeling, for my case, is that going "too" hard at the beginning presses out more of me (and that should be very different for an elite athlete).

Oliver K said...

Since Carl's time are similar to mine, I hope you don't mind me commenting a bit more on them (since I find them altogether a bit "strange", from my own times):

First of all I must say that I never ever go for 400m as fast as I can. I mostly swim 50m and some 100m, and then 400m is close to infinity. So I go "strong"; I feel that has a kind of "fixed" meaning, but at the end of 400m I feel puuuh, rest say 60s in the water, and continue, while with a race I would either die or crawl out of the water with the last remaining strength (and die then).

And then I do also the first 50m in around 42s, with 60 strokes per minute, it decays to 45s the second 50m, and then tends to 49s/50s, with something around 56 strokes per m, in a kind of "emergency stroke", rather short.

However when doing lots of 100m's, then I go for 56 strokes per m, and do also around 1:28 to 1:32 (rather precisely), but for that, especially 20x100m, I need (or say, I take), say 45-60s rest after each 100m. So Carl's 400m times seem a bit slow. Just my impression.

Anonymous said...

Paul, I have a question about the tempo trainer. I watched your video and set my TT up for my CSS time, thinking it would be great for a long set. But how do you work the rest time in? Do you have to reset each time. Wouldn't be practical for short rests, it seems.

Anonymous said...

Hello Swim smooth coaches,

I have been pondering Carl's exact same question for a long while too. My first 50v is a good 5-6 seconds faster than my average speed (49' first 50v, average 54-56'). I figure at least half of those 5-6 seconds is the time it takes to turn around (I don't tumble) and if I'm already going as fast as I can, I can not do as well on the other laps because i don't have those free seconds I get from the inital push off.

I'm thinking maybe I can do a crescendo, start of slow and catch up on the last 100v, but I think that at the very best, I finish off with the same total time and I will only have worked harder the last 100m.

I just can't figure out how we can improve by not taking advantage of those free seconds we get from the inital push off. And if my mind doesn't get it, maybe my body doesn't want to contradict it ;-)

Thanks for your blog, it's great for my motivation!

Isabel (Quebec, Canada)

Shorty said...

Am awesum blog on the CSS Swim Trial.Has motivated me heaps and the pure logic behind it. Im a 06:55, 400 and 03:36 , 200 CSS swimmer , 25mts Indoor Pool.The Tempo Trainer is the ULTIMATE tool.

jaja said...

I did my first CSS test this past weekend thanks to a bit of prodding from your emails!
I was pleasantly surprised by my time 7:21/400m (3:33/200m) especially as my personal best in a 400m aquathlon swim was 7:47.

However, I was totally floored by my decent pacing. On the 400m my 100s were: 1:48.9 - 1:51.5 - 1:51.1 - 1:49.6. On the 200 my 100s were 1:46.5 and 1:46.7. And my number of strokes per minute was decent too (56 and 60 respectively).

I'm even more motivated than before.

Adam Young said...

Hi jaja,

Well done on your timetrial results, a very nice improvement in your 400m time and also great pacing!

Your 400 and 200 times give you a CSS pace of 1:54/100m. See if you can sustain that over the course of a CSS session: www.swimsmooth.com/css


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