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by Scott Bay

June 11, 2018

The key to success is internalizing your best pace

There are many ways to approach a race and a lot of talk about race strategy. But the problem, if you’re a self-coached swimmer (and even sometimes when you’re coached), is no one looks you in the eye and says, “I’ve watched your training for a while now, and I think you should approach a race this way.”

So, how do you figure it out? Some careful and calculated pool sets will help you swim within yourself, race so you enjoy it, and make you as fast as you can be.

Leaving It All in the Water

Swimmers always talk about leaving it all in the water, which they absolutely should do. But are their pacing plans leading to their fastest possible swims? Some swimmers who subscribe to the go-out-fast-and-hang-on school of racing are telling the truth, but would a different strategy get them to the finish faster? Others start more disciplined and have a lot of energy left at the end that they burn in the last part of the race, but should they have gone out a little faster?

Below are sets that have led to some remarkable open water results by Masters swimmers who train primarily in the pool. Because many swimmers have limited access to great open water venues, finding your sustainable pace and how it relates to your fitness in the pool is a good way to go.

  • Find Your Base: What is your 1000-yard or 1000-meter time? Was it an even split? If you don’t know, go to the pool, swim a 1000 for time, and have someone record 100 splits for you. Immediately after, dry off and write down how you felt at the beginning, through the middle, and at the finish, as well as after the swim.   
  • Analyze the Information: If you went out fast, that pretty much shows your default in terms of how you might race. We all feel great at the beginning. Is that fitness or just the rush of adrenaline or maybe overconfidence?
  • Reflect: How did your stroke feel throughout the course of the swim? Were you beating on the water the last few yards? 

Finding the Sustainable Pace

There are lots of ways to find your right pace, much of it dependent on the distance you plan to swim. The example below is for a 1K race, so you may need to adjust based on what you plan to swim.

  • The 10 x 100s Set: You’re probably wondering, “Who hasn’t done this?” The purpose here is to look at what your 1000 time was and divide by 10. The goal of this set is not to be faster than your 100 time for the 1000 but to hold it for 10 repeats. The interval should be your 100 split time plus 10 seconds. At first, you may feel amazing and be a little too fast.
  • Analyze the Information: Dry off again and look at the splits and think back on how you felt and how your stroke felt through each repeat.
  • Reflect: What did the stroke feel like throughout? Compare feel versus fatigue versus technique for each. Identify where you could have swum more evenly.

Repetition Is Key

The purpose of this exercise is to internalize a pace, so you’ll want to repeat this often leading up to racing season. Here are some things that take your racing to the next level:

  • Who Needs Rest? As you do this set again and again over weeks and months, you’ll find yourself getting better at pace and not blowing up or suffering to the point that you want to quit. Switch it up by reducing the rest. 
  • Need for Speed: As you start to get more comfortable with the pace, start swimming faster repeats with a fixed interval of 10 seconds rest. Find your total time and subtract 90 seconds and that would be your 1K time. Pay close attention to not overdoing the first few when you feel good.
  • Go Long: Change the 10 x 100s into 5 x 200s and play the game again. You’ll find that there are some interesting things that happen at the longer distance. Look back on your notes and see if there’s something there that’s key to swimming better. Once you make the 200s, do 4 x 250s, and, eventually, 2 x 500s. 

What’s With All These Numbers?

Being thoughtful about what’s going on during a swim is really important. Some coaches use heart rate, some use a clock and a distance, but in open water there are no walls and clocks are really inconvenient.

That raises the question of, “Why all the metrics?” The answer is simple: Swim what you feel is your race pace. The only way to do that is to practice what each pace feels like and then be hyperaware of it during a race. Knowing your pace by feel may just get you to the finish with a better result than you expected.


  • Open Water
  • Technique and Training


  • Open Water
  • Pacing
  • Sets
  • Competition