We've heard from many of you who really struggle to pace out your swims and quite a few who don't see why it is important to do so. Let's take a look at some of those comments and questions:
Carl in Minnesota wrote: 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.
Hi Carl, this is a classic situation to find yourself in, the first thing is (and we hope this doesn't sound rude!) but we actually don't believe you will be slower if you pace things out evenly. When you start at 38-42 seconds per 50m it feels very doable but the truth is that you're entering 'the red zone' and the damage is being done for the rest of the swim. It takes a minute or so for your breathing, heart rate and muscular feedback to respond but by then it is too late and you slow down dramatically - and in a maximum effort like a timetrial this is going to hurt a lot!
From our experience if you actually started at 46 seconds for the first 50m you will be able to sustain that pace for the rest of your swim and end up quicker overall. We see swimmers make this improvement all the time, the hardest part is to actually get them to slow down over the first 50-100m. Once they've got that first lap or two right, they naturally swim quicker without even realising it (and it normally feels easier too).
But of course this isn't just about sustaining a level of work, it's also about sustaining your stroke technique. If you start too fast and then fade, your stroke will deteriorate (perhaps feeling like it is 'falling apart') and you will slow down yet further. If you have any sort of crossover, scissor kick or poor body position this will inevitably worsen and you'll really start to fight things.
The drop off in output plus the deterioration in technique means you slow down hugely - a real double whammy.
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?
Absolutely yes! Although we doubt you'll actually be slower over the 200m and 400m - perception and reality can be very distorted with poor pacing, which is obviously the root of the problem in the first place.
An analogy we like to use is to imagine transitioning from being a high revving petrol engine which is great for sprinting to becoming a diesel engine which can sustain more continuous power for long periods of time. Go diesel and your distance swimming will come on leaps and bounds!
Oliver K said: 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).
That's that high revving petrol engine at work Oliver! Can you see the trap you are in here? By never swimming further than 50 or 100m you never train your diesel engine so it never develops. The only way out of this is to swallow some pride and sustain some longer swims at a slower pace. No it won't feel good at first but your fitness will start to improve and it will progressively feel easier (and faster) to do so. It is this aerobic fitness you need - it's not your strength that's failing you.
Get this right and you'll find 400m is only a short warmup - not infinity at all!
Isabel in Quebec posted: I have been pondering Carl's exact same question for a long while too. My first 50m is a good 5-6 seconds faster than my average speed (49' first 50m, 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 off slow and catch up on the last 100m, 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 initial push off. And if my mind doesn't get it, maybe my body doesn't want to contradict it ;-)
Hi Isabel, this is obviously along a very similar vein to Carl and Oliver's questions and you can see our answers there (and we don't think it's the push-off, you get one of those on every length?). Make sure you time yourself push-off to push-off, not push-off to touch before you turn. That way you will be measuring the exact same thing on every length.
To us the key points in your post are in the very first and very last sentences. You've been pondering this 'for a long while' which suggests to us that you've been starting fast and then slowing down in pretty much every swim you do over many months and perhaps years? The question you've got to ask yourself is this: has that been working for you? Are you swimming as quickly as your hard work deserves? We're guessing not.
At the very end of the post you say 'my mind doesn't get it' and that - right there - is the trap isn't it? You simply have to come to terms with the fact you need consistent well paced longer swims in order to improve.
A Simple Set To Improve Your Diesel Engine
Here's a challenge for you if you feel you are in the same situation as Carl, Oliver and Isabel with a large drop-off in pace as you swim. Once a week swim this very simple session:
8x 300m with 20 seconds rest between each 300m.
That's it! But there are three rules:
1) You can swim this at any speed you like but every lap must be the same speed - don't start too fast no matter how easy it feels over the first 50-100m! Ideally use a beeper to get this spot on.
2) The whole session has to be straight swimming with no toys at all (e.g. pull buoy, paddles, fins) except for a beeper.
3) Stick to the 20 seconds rest (we'll be watching you know!)
Swim 3 to 4 sessions every week and include that session as one of them. After four weeks you will start to notice the improvement in the speed you can sustain over 200m and up. What's more, that improvement will continue for a long time as you keep that consistent training and pacing rolling week-in week-out.
It's Not Easy Being An Arnie!
The Arnie Swim Type is the most susceptible to being caught in this 'poor pacing trap' as they are naturally athletic fast-twitch athletes who find it all too easy to start too quickly. We've worked with Arnies from novice swimmers to elite triathletes who struggle with distance swimming speed but the answer to improving their swimming is always the same :
- Swallow some pride
- Fix the pacing
- Swim longer sets with short recoveries
Most Arnies reading this won't truly come to terms with this and will disregard it, leaving them in the poor pacing trap until they do. If you can be the one to truly take it on board and swallow the bitter pill of swimming slower but more continuously, you will soon be on the way to being a much faster swimmer.