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by Scott Bay

December 4, 2018

There are many different approaches to a race. How do you know which one works for you?

We’ve all done it. We see other swimmers have amazing swims and we want to know their secrets to swimming fast.

The obvious part is training and fitness and, to be honest, the physiology part is pretty scientific and there’s a ton of stuff out there on that.

What is the X-factor then? Race strategy. It’s wildly different for everyone and if you’re on your own or with a coach who doesn’t know you well yet, figuring out what works is really tough.

Here are some simple ideas to help you figure out what feels best for you and gets you the best results. This is more art than science, and the guidelines are for races of 200 yards or more. (Sprints are addressed at the end.)

Popular Race Strategies

It’s really easy to look at elite performances and think that was a great strategy and that maybe you should try it yourself. But how do you know if it’s for you?

There are a few strategies that are popular and very successful depending on who’s doing them, their fitness level, and their natural and psychological makeup.

  • The Build: This is one where you cut the race into pieces. For years, coaches have talked about negative splits and being disciplined in the first part of the race. The Good: You don’t blow up in the first part of the race and have the longest race ever and suffer the rest of the way. The Bad: You may have played it too cautious and had more left at the end.
  • Top and Tail: This is a strategy where you go out fast and then settle in before bringing it home strong. The Good: You have that adrenaline rush out of the start that helps you get some separation. The Bad: You have to be disciplined to not overdo it, so when the field comes back on you a bit you can power back up the last part of the race.
  • Fly and Die: This is where you go out strong and try to hang on. The Good: You have clean water to swim in and you may have demoralized your competition. The Bad: You may have been too aggressive and the last part of the race you suffer badly and even worse, you can barely move.

How Do You Choose?

Aside from doing a bunch of races week in and week out to figure it out (who has the time for that?) you can work on it in practice. Remember this is as much about feel as it is time on the clock. If you feel good you will be confident and test your limits.

Here’s a great way to test what race strategy might work best for you. Mind the clock and how you feel.

Swim 6 x 225s on however much rest you want. The last 25 is always an easy swim for recovery so all of the instructions are for a 200-yard swim but can easily be adapted to longer races.

  • Build: Each 50 gets progressively faster
  • Top and Tail, Part 1: First and last 25 fast; middle 150 at a comfortably fast pace
  • Top and Tail, Part 2: First and last 50 fast; middle 100 at a comfortably fast pace
  • Fly and Die: Just go out fast and try to hang on
  • Fly and Die with a Twist: First 25 fast, middle 50 fast, and last 25 fast
  • Swim Your Race: Mix up the strategies and find what works for you

Swim Your Own Race

Whether you’re a pool swimmer, a triathlete, or an open water swimmer, this is a great exercise to work on. If you don’t find a way to swim that gets you your best results, you’re at the mercy of any competitors who know their best races inside and out. You’ll have a much better result and feel better about your race if you’re in control rather than having someone else dictate your strategy. The whole idea is to do this exercise at least once a month and, after a while, you’ll figure out what works best for you.

For sprinters, you can probably adapt this in a way for a 100 but the 50 is pretty tough. The shorter the race, the slimmer the margin for error. Still, strategy plays a role in those as well. In those cases, it is wise to maximize your strengths as well. Got a great start? Be aggressive and swim in clean water. Bad walls? Draft to make up for the weakness off the walls. Can’t bring it home? Aside from the physiology stuff, take your foot off the gas a touch at the beginning.

In the end, practice how you want to race.


  • Technique and Training


  • Races
  • Racing
  • Pacing