How to Pace Your Race

Exercising Restraint

Knowing how to pace a race appropriately is one of the most difficult aspects of competitive swimming. It goes against our very nature, particularly when we are excited and fresh at the start of each race, to hold back. Yet holding back, keeping our emotions under control, is precisely what we need to do in order to prevail.

To some degree, every officially sanctioned race in the sport of swimming requires pacing. Even the 50-meter swims, which are not true sprints, require self-control and discipline in order to be done well. Most of those 50’s are won or lost in the last 10 meters.

So how does a swimmer learn to pace correctly? Practice. One needs to train in a similar way that one wants to compete. Swimmers that tend to get slower through a set will tend to do the same in a race. Swimmers that learn to hold their pace on sets, or even descend them, tend to pace much more effectively.

The Right Tempo

There are many training modalities and tools that can help teach pacing. One of the most effective is called the Tempo Trainer, by Finis. I consider it to be the most valuable tool in your swim bag. Like a metronome for music, one sets the beep of the trainer to the desired frequency and places the device under the cap behind the ear or on the goggle strap where it can be heard easily. The Tempo Trainer has three modes, one for stroke rate, another for cycle time and a third for pacing interval. All three modes help with pacing, either by enabling the swimmer to keep the stroke rate constant, or letting him/her know if he/she is ahead or behind the desired pace.

One of my favorite training sets for pacing is negative-split sets, that is swimming the second half faster than the first half. In order to do this effectively, swimmers have to learn to control their efforts going out and learn how to step up the effort at the midway point. Another effective training set is descending intervals. For example, swimming 20 x 100 starting out at a 1:30 interval and decreasing the send-off interval by one second each time. By the 20th 100, the interval will be down to 1:10.  By trying to hold the same time on descending intervals, the effort must increase with each 100, similar to pacing a race effectively.

Good pacing not only requires training effectively, but also demands excellent fitness. One cannot pace a 1500 effectively if one is not in shape to sustain the pace, whatever it might be. One needs to train properly for the distance one is racing.

Fueling Up

Finally, one cannot overlook the importance of breathing in proper pacing. Oxygen is not over-rated. We produce about 15 times more ATP, the gasoline for our muscles, with oxygen as opposed to without it. Plus we produce less lactate, a molecule that causes our muscles to function less effectively.

In the butterfly, for example, in any event over a fifty, most of the elite male swimmers of the world are turning to breathing every stroke in order to finish faster. In the men’s 1500, Sun Yang breathes 3 successive breaths in a row into and out of every turn, plus often at least once or twice in the middle of the pool. One cannot sustain the pace well nor finish fast without providing enough oxygen to the body.

At The Race Club, we will help you learn how to use your Tempo Trainer effectively and correctly and help you with your breathing patterns. Both are vital to learn good pacing. We will help you learn the important art of race pacing.

Yours in Swimming,

Gary Sr.

8 Responses to How to Pace Your Race

  1. Charlie

    What woulld be the rest time between each 100?

    • garyhallsr

      If you are training for longer distances such as the 1500 meters, typically the rest intervals are short…like 10 to 15 seconds. The goal is to hold the desired pace and stroke rate for all of them.

  2. Nigel Ang

    Hi gary. I was wondering what would u recommend for me to do to improve on my sprint stroke. Im currently struggling to find my stroke and its hard to find it comfortable to sprint. Im a breaststroker and would using the tempo trainer help me?please give me tips on how i can find my sprinting style and stroke.

    • garyhallsr

      In breaststroke, the sprint technique, as best exemplified by Adam Peaty and Lily King, is a fast stroke rate loop pull technique with high elevation and coupling energy. To do properly requires lightning fast kicking cycle.

  3. Islam Abdou

    Awesome article, I’m a huge fan of your work and follow all your articles and videso.

    I have a question, how would you generally swim a 100 Free and a 200 Free in terms of splits and breathing pattern ?

    • garyhallsr

      The 200 is easy. Breathe every cycle (2 strokes). In the 100, since half of the energy is provided by anaerobic and half by aerobic, it is different for men and women. Men generally breathe every cycle while women breathe every fourth on first 50 and more often than that on the second 50. All hold their breath for last 5-7 strokes to the wall and increase stroke rate.

  4. Lyle

    Your comments and suggestions over the years have been so helpful to me. Do you have training camps? If so , where and how is it structured, costs etc.

    Thank you kindly


    • Mary Hall

      HI Lyle, Yes, of course. We have swimmers from all over the world come to our California and Florida locations everyday of the year for camps or private sessions. Here’s all the info on camp and privates rates and dates: Email us for any questions and we’d be happy to talk to you about hteunique Race Club experience and family. Amy


Add a Comment