Article image

by Terry Heggy

January 6, 2021

Designing workouts to help swimmers master pacing will help them swim fast races between 200 and 1,000 yards

Dialing in the optimal pace for a middle-distance event is a challenge, especially for athletes who race multiple distances in a single meet. How can coaches prepare their swimmers to allocate their energy for their best performance in freestyle events between 200 yards and 1,000 yards long?

Here are some thoughts on designing workouts to help swimmers master pacing over those distances.

The Basic Concepts

Each swimmer is unique and will have to discover what works best for him or her. A few athletes fall outside the norms depending on natural gifts and levels of training, but for the average Masters swimmer, it’s reasonable to assume that these concepts are generally applicable to middle-distance events:

  • The best overall times come from relatively even pacing
  • Because fatigue increases over distance, steady pacing means effort must intensify throughout the race
  • The best way to understand your optimal pace is to practice pacing at high intensity

Some swimmers grasp the concept best when stated this way: “Your gas tank is empty when you touch the wall at the end of the race.” Not too much before and certainly not after. If you run out of gas too early by taking it out too hard, you won’t finish well, and the final meters will be excruciating. And if you feel like you have plenty of pep left when the race is over, well, you just didn’t work hard enough.

My final argument for pacing well is just a personal observation: It’s just a lot more fun to pass people at the end of a race than to watch everyone else zip by as you flail away in an exhausted struggle to finish.

As you consider these suggestions, keep in mind that they are a part of a balanced training program that should also include plenty of technique work and moderate-speed aerobic conditioning, as well as the occasional all-out sprinting with adequate recovery.

It’s a Mental Thing

Although these sets provide plenty of metabolic training to improve oxygen usage capacity, lactate tolerance, and threshold performance, the most important benefit is in learning what it feels like at various stages of an outstanding performance. It’s about knowing what pace to use at the start, how to hold a consistent groove at the edge of the envelope in the middle, and how to finish with courage and determination.

And of course, there’s learning to hold form throughout the onset of fatigue and discomfort.

Practice races

The only way to replicate the experience of racing in a meet is to race in practice. Every now and then, hold a special practice where swimmers can have their own lane to go off the blocks to race their target distance. Take splits and have a post-swim chat to review pacing and how the actual times relate to the perceptions they had during their race.

Depending on the phase of the training season, such mock races within a swim practice may not approach times that would be expected in a meet. That’s OK; what’s important is that your swimmers experience a race-pacing mindset and are given a chance to analyze their performance and learn from it.

Negative splits

Negative splitting, in which the athlete swims the second half of the race faster than the first, can be done with any distance, though the math is easiest in the 200 and 400. I ask swimmers to do an open turn at the halfway point to look at the clock. In addition to allowing them to see their split time, this disruption in rhythm makes it a bigger challenge to swim the back half faster and therefore emphasizes the increase in effort required after the midpoint.

Negative splitting isn’t about perceived effort—the second half needs to actually be faster than the first, not just feel faster. Some swimmers think they’re swimming negative because they feel they increased their effort in the second half. Without verification from the clock, they could be mistaken (and usually are). Help your swimmers with their calculations and give examples to demonstrate the results you seek.

Broken distance swims and ladders

Adding short rest breaks into distance sets can help swimmers maintain focus and intensity.

  • FSYCH. The fastest-send-off-you-can-hold concept teaches consistency at any distance.
  • Race pace training. Determine a target pace for each of your swimmers and have them attempt to hold that pace for the total distance of their chosen race. Add enough rest to make it possible to hold that pace while making it an appropriate challenge. For example, a 500 swimmer might do 5 x 100s with 40 seconds rest, and a 1000 swimmer might do 5 x 200s with 75 seconds rest. Remind athletes not to go out too fast; the first repeat in the set should set the standard they’ll try to hold on each subsequent swim.
  • Ladders. Descending distance repeats develop the ability to increase effort. As the distances get shorter, the swimmer will naturally try to push harder. An example of a great descending ladder to train for the 1000-yard freestyle is a 400, 300, 200, and 100, with 20 seconds rest between.

As you describe the workout, explain how each set enhances race performance if done properly. If your swimmers approach the work with the attitude that it’s about learning how to allocate energy across a distance, they’ll see results in the very next meet.


  • Technique and Training


  • Freestyle