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by Terry Heggy

February 22, 2019

It’s not a sprint and it’s not distance. Here’s how to determine your best pace for a 200.

Racing a 200 requires the most precise implementation of strategy of all swimming events. In 50s, you simply uncork the energy bottle and pour it all out; distance races often provide time to recover from a strategic error in pacing. But the 200 is unforgiving in its need for an exact allocation of intensity. Take it out too slow and you’ll never catch up. Go out too fast and you’ll suffer searing agony as your muscles tighten up, leaving you helpless as competitors zip by at the end of the race.

The strategic challenge of the 200 can make it the most entertaining event to watch and the most satisfying to swim. Here are some tips for racing your best 200.

Step 1: Analyze

Your training and racing strategy depend on how your body responds during competition. Work with your coach to determine where you fall on the physiology spectrum.

Pacers—The majority of 200 swimmers go fastest when they pace the race evenly, keeping 50 splits almost identical. Fatigue builds as distance increases, so maintaining a steady pace requires an increasing level of effort. You’re probably a pacer if one or more of the following things are true about you:

  • Your best races are longer ones
  • You love to negative split your races
  • Your repeat times remain consistent during long sets on an interval

Rabbits—Some athletes find that they experience the same fatigue during the back half of a race regardless of the effort expended early. In other words, they tie up late in the race no matter how relaxed they were at the beginning. Rabbits race best by getting as far ahead as possible and holding on.

Your position on the spectrum may vary with training. The way fatigue affects your pace is influenced by fitness, nutrition, workload/recovery, and mental state. It also depends on which stroke you’re racing; you may adopt a radically different pacing strategy for a 200 butterfly than you would for a 200 backstroke.

Step 2: Train

The best training for racing 200s is to swim plenty of 200s in meets. Competition reveals the true relationship between your times and your perceptions. So, the more you race, the better you understand how to allocate your energy. Between meets, ask your coach for sets that focus on racing 200s.

Go off the blocks

Although long sets of 200s on short intervals do improve aerobic fitness, they don’t provide the intensity needed for race training. You’ve got to push the effort into the red zone every few weeks with high-effort 200s from the blocks.

For off-the-block efforts, swim hard and then take enough rest to fully recover (at least an easy 50 and several minutes of relaxation) before the next repeat. If possible, get your 50 splits and compare the times to how it felt, then make adjustments that will help you achieve your best overall 200 time for each repetition. Focus on race-quality starts and turns, and embrace the discomfort of the effort.

A fun variant is to swim a hard 100 from the blocks, then quickly jump out to do five push-ups before immediately diving off the block to swim one more 50 as hard as you can. This challenges you to hold form and effort when your muscles are toast.

Watch the clock

Rabbits achieve the best results by training themselves to adapt to discomfort by swimming hard for longer durations. Pacers develop a reliable ability to optimally spread effort across a 200 by tracking split times as they train.

  • Solid splits—During a set of 5 x 200s, do an open turn at each 100 to look at your time. Then without pausing, do the second 100 at that same time or faster. For example, if you see 1:30 at your turn, your total 200 time needs to be 3:00 or faster. The open turn adds time, requiring a higher effort on the back half to achieve an even or negative split. Because you’re learning how an even-paced 200 feels, this set is effective on both short and long send-off intervals. Experiment to find the front-half effort that produces the fastest overall even-split 200.
  • Descending—Swim five sets of 4 x 50s on an interval that gives no more than 10 seconds rest between the 50s, with up to a minute rest between the sets. Try to get faster (or hold the same pace) on each of the four 50s, experimenting to find the effort that gives you the fastest first 50 you can descend from.

If you always negative split or descend, you haven’t yet found your limit. Push harder at the beginning until you find the threshold between success and failure, then remember how that threshold effort feels. Use that memory to establish your initial target effort when you take the blocks at your next meet.

Step 3: Strategize

If you know yourself well and have trained to optimize your talent for the 200, you can ignore your competitors for the first half of the race. The worst mistake a well-trained pacer can make is to succumb to early exhaustion by foolishly chasing a rabbit. A rabbit who holds back to cruise beside a strong finisher is doomed to get passed at the end. A good way to swim your own race is to develop a four-phrase mantra that includes a specific focus for each 50. Examples include the following:

  • Stroke-Pull-Kick-Sprint (AKA Naber Quarters)
  • Sprint-Hang On-Be Tough-Pure Guts (Hare’s hymn)
  • Underwater-Glide-Kick-Tempo (good one for breaststrokers and butterflyers)
  • Relaxed-Hard-Painfully Hard-Sprint

Each 200 provides an opportunity to use intelligence and strategy in race preparation, and rewards with you great satisfaction when your execution matches your plan. Have fun nailing it!


  • Technique and Training


  • Breaststroke
  • Butterfly
  • Backstroke
  • Freestyle
  • Races
  • Racing