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Teach Your Swimmers to Perceive Their Pace

Here's how you can teach your swimmers an important skill

Terry Heggy | November 11, 2017

The perfect race comes when a swimmer paces evenly throughout, and exhausts his last erg of energy on the final stroke. No one wants to run out of gas midway and watch helplessly as competitors pass by. It’s also heartbreaking to touch the pad and realize that there was excess energy that could have been used to achieve a faster time.

The secret to optimal competitive performance is knowing exactly what the perfect pace feels like and using that knowledge to correctly allocate energy across the race. Let’s discuss a few ways to train your swimmers for that perfect energy allocation.

The Basics

Accurate speed awareness requires a pace clock, and the coach’s insistence that the swimmers pay attention to their times. Swimmers often think they are splitting negatively because their effort increased on the back half, but the clock may indicate otherwise. By requiring swimmers to know their actual split times during workouts (and reviewing swim meet race splits with them), we help them close the gap between perception and reality.

Modify the sets described below as appropriate for individual swimmers, with shorter distances and higher intensities for sprinters, etc. Make sure your swimmers understand that they are training their mental abilities as well as their physical fitness. Their goal is to understand how the race will feel when they’re on their optimal pace.

The Sets

When assigning these sets, help swimmers choose sendoffs and target times. The better you know your swimmers, the better you’ll be able to do this. Recognize that each swimmer will have good days and bad days, but also acknowledge the influence your attitude has on swimmer achievement. Challenge them with positive encouragement and high expectations, and their performance will improve as a result.

Negative Splits

Any distance can be swum negatively, and negative split sets can contain any number of repeats. Mix it up throughout the season, but come back to a few standard sets (e.g., 5 x 200 or 3 x 400) to track progress. I like to have swimmers do an open turn at the halfway point so they can look at the clock and get their first-half time, challenging them to finish the entire swim in no more than twice the time they saw. For example, if a swimmer finishes the first 100 of a negative 200 in 1:30, his total finish time must be under 3:00. The open turn and on-the-fly math calculation add a challenge that requires maximum effort on the back half.

Descending Swims

Descending sets should include relatively few repeats (3, 4, or 5 swims). Challenge swimmers to keep the times in a tight cluster, so they learn how to finely differentiate between the efforts required to hit specific similar target times. Choose shorter intervals for training intense race paces, although allowing a bit more for distance events. Examples include:

  • For swimmers who generally hold a pace of 40 seconds per 50, ask for 5 x 50 descending on :50, with target swim times of :44, :42, :40, :38, and :36.
  • For that same group, ask for 3 x 400 on 6:00, with target times of 5:30, 5:25, and 5:16.

Building effort swims can be thought of as descending sets without rest. In other words, a “build” 200 would be swum straight, but with each 50 slightly faster than the previous one. A “build” 1500 would be swum with descending splits for each 500.

Fastest Sendoff You Can Hold

Swimming on FSYCH teaches swimmers how much they must hold in reserve on the first part of a swim to be able to finish the set without missing the interval. As they get better at the set, the rest on each swim can be reduced. These sets should be long enough that the interval is very difficult to achieve by the end of the set. Note that sprinters will typically need a bit more rest than distance experts (perhaps 10 seconds rather than just 2 or 3), but the set is still an excellent way to help them understand their energy allocation. A swimmer with a 40-second pace might do the following:

  • 10 x 50 on :45
  • 5 x 100 on 1:25 or 1:30
  • 10 x 200 on 3:15

An excellent variant for triathletes is to alternate hard and moderate swims on a tight interval. This trains the ability to crank hard (as you would at the start of a triathlon) and then quickly get back into a sustainable groove.

  • 5 x (2 x 100), with odds very fast, and evens at pace. Our example swimmer might swim the first of each pair in 1:18, starting the second swim on 1:25 and holding a pace of 1:30 or better. The next pair would start on 3:15.

Ladders and Pyramids

Ask swimmers to hold a consistent pace as the repeat distance increases. Whatever they do on the first swim establishes the pace they’ll need to hold for the other swims.

  • 100, 200, 300, 400, 500 with 20 seconds rest

The target time for the 500 should challenge the swimmer to maximum effort. The requirement to hold the 100 pace will quickly teach them not to take it out too fast, even though the pace seems too easy at the beginning.

For an extra challenge, bring the ladder back down (optionally repeating the 500 for the stronger swimmers). Fatigue makes each of these swims surprisingly challenging.

  • 500, 400, 300, 200, 100

Prediction Swims

To help swimmers understand how effort relates to results, ask swimmers to predict times. Challenge them to accurately predict both fast and moderate swims, in all strokes and distances.

  • All-out 100
  • 100 at 1650 pace
  • Half IM (50 back/breast)
  • 2 x 200 kick at exactly the same pace

Make it clear that you want them to hit their prediction exactly, not to just shout out a time they know they can surpass. The idea is for them to understand their abilities so well that they can confidently control their pace with accuracy. For added incentive to predict precisely, have the entire team repeat the prediction challenge until everyone in the pool comes within one or two seconds of the time they forecast.

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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