Learning how to pace medium to longer swims can be quite a difficult process. You need to have the perfect combination of distance per stroke and speed. Some swimmers can just naturally find that steady momentum throughout their entire swim. The rest of us have to learn how to control our speed while maintaining a solid stroke rate properly for an extended length of time.
Often, when sprinters first try races like the 200m or the 400m Freestyle, they treat the first few laps as a sprint, then fall off pace and practically drown at the end. This is due to their muscles fatiguing and filling with lactic acid. As you can imagine, any coach watching this would just shake their head in frustration. I know I have a few times and even had a few coaches do it at me too.
There is a way to improve your pacing performance. Finding that maintainable effort and rhythm in your stroke will help teach your body how to properly pace these types of events and deal with lactic acid in the muscles efficiently. This type of training is called threshold training or critical speed swimming (CSS).
I'm going to focus on the 200m and 400m style of events throughout the rest of this post as they can be the hardest to learn. The reason I want to talk about training for 200's or 400's is because they aren't quite sprints and yet not quite a distance events either. They are events that take strategy, understanding and good feel of the water to have true success. These races are far less about technique and much more about the mental strength.
How to train for 200m or 400m
There are several training options here. One I'm particularly fond of is the notion of doing repeats while trying to hold the same speed for each repetition with minimal amount of rest. For example, if you are training for the 200m, you could do:
10x200m. For these repetitions, you should be getting 20 seconds rest. This gives your muscles just enough time to recover to help you hold the same time for the next round. What this set does is it fatigues your muscles while teaching your mind how to dig in and work the technical angles of your stroke efficiencies. Also by adding the extra repetitions to your swim, you'll be training your body to have more energy over a longer distance meaning that during your actual race you'll be able to push harder without worry of fatigue.
Another technique for training for these type of events is using negative split training. A negative split is when a swimmer goes faster in the backend of a race than they did in the first half. Let's say you went a 1:05 for the first 100 meters of your race, then you pushed yourself that much harder in the last 100 meters going 1:02. That would be a negative split. I've always felt that negative splitting a race was one of the best strategic ways to drop time and increase your potential to win. There are several coaches I've worked with over the years that would disagree. But I've witnessed so many swimmers use all their energy in that first half that they don't stay mentally tough in the second half, especially the third 50 or 100 of the race. For some reason this is where most swimmers just coast their way to the last part of the swim where they then try to get their wheels turning again. So my belief is that a swimmer can use that third part of their race as a gateway to gain distance on their competitors. Increasing their speed on this third part and then carrying that into their last portion of the race will allow them to stay at a higher speed for longer while their competition is trying to get their bodies back up to that particular level of speed and deal with the lactic acid build up in their muscles.
Sometimes this doesn't work out to being a negative split which is fine, but using that third portion of your race as a launch pad to the final boost will help you outpace your competitors 9 times out of 10. This is key to not easing up on that final drive to the finish. Giving yourself the mental and physical boost during your third portion of the swim to help you stay mentally tough into the final portion. This will give you an edge on your competitors.
There are a lot of other options for learning to train for these events. Threshold training should be done at least once a week. Make sure that these sets and training are of the best quality of swimming. Put both a mental effort and a physical effort into your training to gain the highest benefit from it.
Work with your coach to figure out your critical speed swimming. This will help you and your coach craft a plan of action for future training. If you are really good at math, then you can find your CSS by using the following equation to find out the times you need to hold for the most effective training. First you will need to follow the CSS test sets. These include two time trial swims - a 200 and a 400. Then use those times in the equation below.
CSS (m/sec) = (400 - 200) / (T400 - T200)
Where T400 and T200 are your 400 and 200m times in seconds. We then convert your speed from m/sec into time per 100m.
Learning to use this type of anaerobic training will help you learn to better pace your 200 and 400 races. Training with these bigger sets and shorter recovery times will help sharpen your mental skills and help you make your speed more sustainable for a longer period of time. Having good pacing technique is an important skill to learn and is one of the key differences between amateur and elite swimmers.