Everyone knows that what you do in training is the key to determining how your races will go. But how should you train? A simplistic answer to this question is to train like you race, but the devil is in the details so let's break it down.
There are essentially three measurable factors that determine your swimming performance. Sheila Taormina teaches us in Swim Speed Secrets1 the key swim equation:
Time = Number of Strokes * Stroke Rate
These measures form a 3 legged stool – take away one of the legs and the whole thing collapses. Yet in swimming almost all of our training focus is on time without monitoring how we're doing on the other two. To see evidence of this, look at the measurement tools that are used in workouts – a pace clock and a stopwatch. The focus might shift to stroke count or stroke rate for a drill set, but that focus is generally lost once the main set starts.
Training like you race is much more than just swimming at "race pace"
You should also train at your race target stroke count, and stroke rate. We shouldn't expect to suddenly know how to hit race targets in competition without having trained our bodies to achieve them in practice.
I'm going to devote a post each to time, stroke count, and stroke rate and explore ways to bring more race focus to your training.
TIME - how you pace a race is a primary success factor
There are different pace strategies for different races, e.g. sprint, distance, or open water. Generally for anything longer than a 50 you need to be able to pace the race – that is control your time and speed so that you can balance your energy expenditure over the entire race (i.e. don't die at the end :).
In order to control your races you need to "develop a pace clock in [your] head"2. This can be very challenging to do in swimming where feedback is restricted – it's difficult to see the clock while swimming and verbal feedback is only possible at the end of each swim.
There are several training approaches that can help you develop your internal clock and the required level of pace control. Three techniques commonly used are negative splitting, descending, and race pace training.
Negative split means that your time on the second half of the swim is faster than your time on the first half. Studies have shown that even or negative splitting is an effective race strategy and results in faster overall times for races longer than 100 yards/meters. The following chart shows a set of example 50 splits for 3 x 100's, the first with positive splits and the other with negative splits.
To learn to control your speed and negative split you need to work on it in practice every day. Emmet Hines advises that "until you have a lot of experience with negative splitting you cannot rely on your body to give you accurate feedback about your swimming pace"3. Your coach might specifically advise negative splitting during a particular set, in which case you should embrace the challenge. However, even if the set doesn't explicitly call for it, you can still work on it within the context of the set.
I'll also mention "building" here as it is close cousin of negative splitting. When building a swim, you work on getting faster throughout the swim (e.g. each 50 of a 200 faster than the last). So your time on the second half should be faster than the first half.
Descending refers to the relationship of times between repeats in a set. For example, if you are doing a set of 8 x 50, descending would mean that your total time on each 50 would be faster than the previous. Descending a set is also a great way to develop control of your pace. You need to conserve energy at the beginning of the set and step up the effort at the end.
Note that descending can be combined with build or negative split to develop a really fine-tuned ability to change gears.
Race Pace Training
In race pace training, you try to achieve your actual race target times in practice. This might come during special test sets or adherents to the USRPT4 training program will do race pace sets as the primary training method every workout.
Again with race pace training, the goal is to train your mind and body to be able to swim at your goal race pace. If you do race pace training often, you will develop a great sense of just the right amount of effort required to swim at your goal speed. Then when you get to the actual race it will be second nature!
Getting Feedback in Swimming is Hard
"I could tell you swam the last half harder - there is, however, a distinction between harder and faster."3 It is difficult to know if you are training at the right pace, especially for anything longer than a 50. I personally didn't learn how to pace until college when I started wearing a watch and looking at it during the streamline after each turn (I know, it kind of defeats the purpose of the "streamline"). Looking at the clock is also similarly challenging. Ideally you will train the way you want to race in the sense of maintaining good stroke technique, good turns, and good finishes and not set those things aside in order to get pace feedback.
Take Your Swimming to the Next Level
Embracing the opportunities to train like you race can improve your swim performance, but training like you race can take your swimming to the next level. Firebelly's SmartFeedbackTM gives you real-time audio announcements of your times without interrupting your swim. The bone conduction audio is easy to hear underwater. You can configure how often you want to hear your times, e.g. every length or every other length. You can also decide if you want to hear your split time, cumulative time or both so you always know where you are at relative to your pace goals. Additionally, Firebelly's recorded data allows you to look at a per-length or split-aggregated detail so that you can see exactly how you paced your swims. The ability to export the data allows you to track and compare over time.
The next time your coach calls "5 x 100 negative split, descend last one race pace on 3:00" you'll know exactly what they are talking about, and if you have a Firebelly on, you'll be on track to doing the set correctly and developing your internal pace clock.
1. Taormina, Sheila. Swim Speed Secrets. Velo Press, 2012.
2. Riggs, Vic and Renee. "Teaching Race Strategy in Training and Racing: The Power of Negative Split": https://swimmingcoach.org/teaching-race-strategy-in-training-and-racing-the-power-of-negative-split-by-vic-and-renee-riggs-2001/
3. Hines, Emmet. "What's All This About Negative Splits?": http://www.usms.org/articles/articledisplay.php?aid=114
4. Daniel O. Thompson III, MD. "REVOLUTION IN SWIMMING: ULTRA-SHORT RACE-PACE TRAINING (VERSION 2.0)". http://coachsci.sdsu.edu/swim/bullets/ultra40a.pdf