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An Effective Tool for Coaching Distance Pacing

Using the FSYCH approach to teach steady swimming

Terry Heggy | February 24, 2016

The swimmers who set records in distance swimming typically split their races very evenly. In Sun Yang’s 1500-meter race at the 2012 Olympics, his 50 splits varied by only a few tenths of a second throughout the race, and his front and back half times were nearly identical.

Although Sun Yang is an elite example, his approach can be useful for Masters swimmers, too. Use this technique to teach your swimmers steady pacing so they can achieve personal best performances in distance racing.

Understand the Temptation

We feel so good at the start of a race, so it’s tempting to go out fast. Everything is easy and fun for 100 meters or so, but then our bodies let us know we’ve made a big mistake. What had been feeling great suddenly becomes exhaustion. We tighten up, our stroke falls apart, oxygen seems hard to find, and everyone else in the heat rockets past like we’re standing still.

Our swimmers need to learn that correct pacing is not based on simply feeling good, but on knowing how the correct pace should feel. The only way to know what that pace feels like is to practice it and pay attention.

Implement the FSYCH Approach

A great way to learn distance pacing is to do sets on the Fastest Sendoff You Can Hold (FSYCH). This means that swimmers will begin each repeat on the quickest interval they can maintain throughout the entire set. The goal is to choose the sendoff interval that gives the swimmer the least rest without ever missing the sendoff.

  • For example, if an athlete swam 10 x 100 on a 1:30 sendoff, and touched the wall somewhere between 1:25 and 1:28 on each one, that would be perfect; just enough time to take a breath, look at the clock, and go.

The short rest replicates the physiological impact of continuous distance swimming, but the clock enforces pacing discipline. I’ve seen swimmers actually do a faster 1000 with this type of interval than they could do without stopping. They’re motivated to make the interval.

An FSYCH set also provides quick and undeniable feedback when the swimmer fails to swim at a steady pace:

  • If our same hypothetical swimmer took out the first 100 of that set in 1:19, that higher effort will likely make her too tired to sustain the 1:30 sendoff after about the third repeat. Sure, the first one felt good, but the learning comes after the suffering sets in later in the set.

As with all our workout sets, we should explain the purpose to the swimmers. As we repeat FSYCH sets throughout the season, our long-term goal is to dial in to that sweet spot where we can swim each repeat at almost exactly the same speed and learn what the first one (or two, or three) feel like at that speed.

  • If done correctly, the first 100 should feel pretty relaxed, while the effort required to hold the same pace increases during the later swims within the set.
  • The ideal interval for the set allows the swimmer to complete the entire set without missing a sendoff; the ideal effort expended leaves her completely spent when the set is finished.

Challenge Your Athletes

FSYCH sets can be done for any distance and any number of repeats. Don’t be afraid to have the team do 30 x 100 or 8 x 400. Oh sure, they’ll whine and moan about it when starting the set, but they’ll thank you for coming up with it after they complete it. Also, be aware that swimmers will want to go on sendoff times that give them too much rest, so make sure you enforce an appropriately challenging sendoff.

It’s easiest to work with sendoff intervals in 5-second increments (1:40, 1:45, etc.), but some of the more experienced (or math-oriented) folks will be able to handle odd numbers (:39 for 50s, or 1:22.5 for 100s). Your job as a coach includes getting to know the athletes well enough to suggest the sendoff time that will be the best achievable challenge for them. Of course, as fitness and technique improve, the appropriate intervals will get shorter.

Swimmers do have good days and bad days, so you’ll need to have some flexibility surrounding the sendoff times. But remember that the FSYCH approach is designed to work throughout the season to teach your swimmers how to feel the pace, and is really about being steady within each set. The sendoff for a particular swimmer on a particular day is not as important as the overall pacing concept.

Tailor Individual Race Plans

As much fun as FSYCH sets are, we need to remember that they are just one element of our overall training program. While these sets are primarily aimed at distance swimmers, they do provide good aerobic and threshold training for the entire team. including your sprinters. But sprinters need to train sprinting, and distance people need their high-intensity speed work as well. So don’t forget to include sets with longer rest intervals as appropriate.

Also recognize that each swimmer is unique and that there’s no single formula that works for everyone. For example, perennial USMS Top 10 sprinter Kathy Garnier performed an extended trial of different pacing strategies for her 500 freestyle and found the best results by taking the first 100 out pretty fast. She discovered that for her, pacing slower at the start does not help achieve a faster finish. But she still credits FSYCH sets with helping her learn to stay strong and to understand the most effective effort expenditure over a distance race. Similarly, triathletes typically need to be able to sprint through the initial race chaos in open water, so their pacing strategies will also involve a faster start.

The core message of the FSYCH approach is that proper distance pacing is a learned behavior. Knowing how much effort you can afford to expend early in a race might mean the different between a personal record and a complete collapse. And training correctly is an essential element in gaining that knowledge.

USMS Wave Seperator

About the Author—Terry Heggy

Terry "Speed" Heggy has been swimming for more than 50 years. He won his age group in the 10K Open Water Championship in 2006, competed in the National Championship Olympic Distance Triathlon in 2014, and qualified again for USAT Nationals in 2015. He's the head coach of Team Sopris Masters in Glenwood Springs, Colo., and is a USMS-certified Level 3 Masters coach and an NASM Certified Personal Trainer.

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