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Who among us hasn’t gone out a little too hard in the swim leg of a race, only to exit the water well after our goal time, feeling utterly gassed and sporting T-rex arms?
It’s not uncommon, especially for newer triathletes, said Karyn Austin, a swim and triathlon coach who leads the SWAG Masters program in Gainesville, Florida. “Some people training for a triathlon just show up at the pool and swim an hour straight, then try to go way harder on race day,” she said. “That’s like if all you ever do is go run 10 miles, dead-ass slow, then really go for it in a race.”
The thing is that many triathletes have a clear understanding of their typical—or ideal—running or cycling paces for various distances. They can probably hit those paces without even wearing a watch; they know what their cadence and heart rate should feel like, they can tell when they’re on the verge of blowing up and they know how to adjust and recover when needed.
But when it comes to swimming, Austin frequently sees those same athletes struggle to figure out their base pace in the pool. And that means when they show up at the start line for a race with their adrenaline pumping, they’re likely to go out at a pace that feels speedy, but fine…until suddenly, around 200 meters in, it isn’t so fine after all.
So, what’s a swimmer supposed to do? We’re glad you asked.
First, find your base pace
Part of the challenge of finding that comfortable base pace is the fact that triathletes tend to like to push, Austin said. “Most people who get into the sport of triathlon don’t have a swimming background, and they think, ‘If I push harder, if I get my heart rate higher, I’ll go faster,’ like they do in the run and the bike,” she said. “But that’s not true in the pool—at least, not if you don’t have good technique.”
Austin urges newer triathletes to focus on balance and base endurance before worrying too much about adding speed. Until her swimmers are completing 1000- to 1500-yard main sets and averaging under two minutes per 100, she’s all about form and breathing.
However, the clock still counts, even if you’re not shattering records. “That’s how you know if the juice is worth the squeeze,” Austin said. “By paying attention to the clock, they know for sure if they’re actually going faster at that [elevated] heartrate. If not, I tell them to ‘try less hard.’”
A great way to determine your base pace is to swim 10×100 with 10 seconds rest, aiming to begin at a pace you believe you’ll be able to hold steadily the entire time. In fact, that’s the figure Austin typically uses to determine what lane of her Masters group swimmers should begin in—although, of course, that’s only helpful if the number she’s given is accurate. “Most newer swimmers overestimate their pace,” Austin said. “I’ll often have a newbie shooting to swim a 1:50 pace—so 2:00 on the clock. They’ll start at 1:48, then their last 100 will take them 2:02. It’s hard to go easy enough at the start.”
Base Pace Swim Workout
Every six weeks, Austin has her swimmers do the following Swim Smooth workout, which has a main set of 1800 yards. “It’s one of my favorites,” she said. “If you can do this and hold pace, you’ve truly dialed in your mile pace.”
Warm-up, then do the following, focusing on keeping your pace steady with all 100s on an interval that allows you no more than 15 seconds of rest so that your heartrate never fully comes down:
- 4×100, then a 200; swim one minute easy
- 3×100, then a 300; swim one minute easy
- 2×100, then a 400; cooldown
“People go out way too fast on their 100s. On the 100s, the pace doesn’t feel that hard,” Austin said. “But then, on that last 400, it gets tough, and they’re 3 to 5 seconds slower [per 100].”
By learning how that pace feels at both short and longer efforts, you not only learn to hit that pace by feel, but you’ll also become more disciplined at holding back early on—which is one of the most important lessons Austin wants her swimmers to learn. After all, if you don’t exercise discipline at the start, you can end up with those T-rex arms at the end.
How to shift into the next gear
Alright, so you’ve done the work. You’re watching the clock, you’re hitting your base pace consistently, and you’ve got enough left in the tank to take it up a notch. You’re ready to find a new gear.
If you’re part of a Masters swim group, moving into a faster lane as you become fitter and more efficient is a natural way to increase your speed. Austin instructs her swimmers to change positions within their lanes so they can take turns leading and drafting. “In triathlon, the point is to get out of the water with as few matches burned as possible,” she said. “If you can draft and have it feel easier while going the same pace, why wouldn’t you?”
She recommends not only drafting on people who swim your pace, but to also try drafting on someone who swims a couple seconds faster than you so you can see how that pace feels. “If you don’t practice, you won’t know how to adjust your stroke when you draft [on race day],” she said.
Gear Shifting Swim Workout
When you’re ready to start adding and identifying your different gears, try another this workout from Austin:
- 3×300: go hard on the first 25 of each, then settle into your mile pace; recover
- 3×200: go hard on the first 25 of each, then settle into your mile pace; recover
- 3×100: go hard on the first 25 of each, then settle into your mile pace; recover
The goal of the workout is for your average 100 pace to get faster each round. For example, when Austin’s swimmers recently did this workout, the averages from one of the lanes were a 1:20 pace for the 300s, a 1:18 pace for the 200s, and, when they got to the 100s, they dropped it again to 1:13. Not only will the workout help you identify and hold these different paces, but with the fast 25 at the front, you’ll also learn how to find your breath and recover without losing pace.
By focusing on form, mixing up your workouts to play with different paces, and getting consistent time in the water, you’ll be adding a gear to your swim in no time.