How to Pace Your Swim

By Deanna Pomfret

Deanna Pomfret

How to Pace Your Swim

By Deanna Pomfret

Pool competitions are neat and predictable. You have lane lines that not only organize the pool but also absorb chop. There is one swimmer per lane, lines on the bottom of the pool so you know where you are in space and as you prepare for a turn. You might have a coach on deck giving you instructions, feedback and encouragement. You have the wall clock so you can fine tune your pace.

Toss yourself into the triathlon swim and you might think, wait, where’s that clock? There’s no good way to look at your watch, no coach, no lane lines or wall turns. There’s you, a bunch of other swimmers, wind, waves and buoys.

Here’s how to prepare your swim pace for a great start to your triathlon race.

Get familiar with rate of perceived exertion in the pool rather than pace. There is no feedback on pace in the swim leg of a triathlon. You could check your watch but that will throw your rhythm off and eat up precious time. You can use a scale of 1-10 or simply think about feel as easy, moderate, somewhat hard, hard, harder and hardest. Pace will be the outcome of your effort rather than the driver for your effort. 

To practice this, add this main set to your pool workout. Try it once a week for a few weeks and compare how you do.

  • Purpose: Master your effort, let pace be the outcome
  • 16-20 x 100, :20 rest
  • Break this up into 4-5 sets of 4 100s. The first set swim at moderate effort, the next at somewhat hard, the next hard, the next harder and the final set hardest. Notice your pace and adjust effort to keep in line with what you’d expect at that effort. Avoid going out too fast on these. The best scenario is to even split or finish several seconds quicker than the first block. Pay attention to how you feel effort wise.

Depending on the field of competitors, adjust your effort or pace strategy on the fly. Having several different options to choose from on race day is the best way to prepare for what sometimes feels chaotic and is always very different from pool swim competition. Here are some race scenarios you might come across and how to prepare for each:

Most likely the field of swim competitors is diverse in skill and experience. If you are at a local race and feel that this is the case, start fast, get out of the crowd and settle into a hard or very hard effort. Whether it’s a rolling start or mass start, try to get in the front. You will find that you have better space and you will save a lot of energy that you would otherwise use to pass the other swimmers.

If the field is experienced like you are, like at a qualifying race or one that is known for a competitive swim, aim for strong, steady, even splits throughout the swim leg. Since the other swimmers will be moving at your pace, you can use the energy and momentum from the pack to pull you along rather than fight it. If you feel good and have a little gas in the tank, finish fast.

Try this main set to practice getting fluent and experienced with different race pace strategies.

  • Purpose: Fast starts and fast finishes
  • 8-10 x 200, :15 rest
  • Split this set up into 4 x 200 as 100 fast, 100 easy, 4 x 200 as 100 easy, 100 fast. 

Get used to active recovery so that you have the option to catch your breath or pull away. You might find yourself in a tight pack, maybe you started a little slower than you intended or you feel good and want to pick it up, find better space and settle back into a good rhythm.

  • Purpose: Active recovery
  • These pick-ups are a great interval workout to keep you connected to the moment, the water, your form and the effort. 2 x 1000, 1:00 rest. Alternate 100 easy, 100 hard for both efforts or in the open water swim 15-20 minutes moderate then another 15-20 minutes alternating 40 strokes hard, 80 strokes easy.

What’s great about going from a strong pool background to triathlon is this: your strength in the swim leg of the race will help you ride and run strong. There’s nothing better than coming out of the water with a huge smile on your face and finding a lot of bikes still in transition! 

About the Author

Deanna Pomfret

Deanna Pomfret is a USA Triathlon Level I Certified Coach and owner of Athletic Pursuits LLC. She has coached since 2005 and is currently pursuing a master’s of science in health and wellness with a fellowship in sports nutrition.