Sorry sprinters, but this article goes out to the people dearest to my heart – my distance swimming compatriots!
Swimming a distance event can be a daunting endeavor. To swim distance events well it requires consistent training to maintain an excellent cardiovascular base. Further, because distance events last multiple and often many minutes, distance swimming requires exceptionally good nutrition leading into the race to ensure that you are properly nourished and there are no gastrointestinal issues during the swim. Leading into the event, eat foods that you know enable you to perform well and that never upset your stomach and intestines. It is also advisable to ensure that your stomach is empty or nearly empty before the start of a distance event. Swimming a distance event is not something that should be done on a whim, even if the goal for the race is “just finishing.”
Preparing for distance events requires diligent training and good planning coming into the day of the race. There are a few different strategies coaches suggest but the vast majority of high-level swimmers even-split (swim the same pace the entire race) or slightly negative-split (swim slightly faster the second half of the race) their swims.
It is important to have a firm idea of the time you think you can swim for the event. If you aren’t able to figure that out on your own, ask a coach. If you tell a coach some distance sets you have done and times you averaged over those sets (i.e. averaging 1:05 per 100 on 10 x 100 on 1:30), most coaches could probably give you a good target goal time for your distance swim.
Once your target goal time is determined, figure out what that translates to in terms of pace per 50 yards or meters. Plan to swim at that pace as long as possible in the event, and hopefully all the way through the swim until the last 15% to 25% of the swim, where you should push a little harder until the finish.
One of the most important things in distance swimming, especially on race day, is to not go out too fast! It is very easy to do because if you’ve trained well the first bit of any long-distance swim feels nice and easy if swimming the goal pace. However, usually around the half-way mark, depending on the distance being swum, it becomes quite obvious that the pace is no longer as easy to hold as it once was.
If you took the swim out too fast (faster per 50 than the determined goal pace), it will come back on you in the end and cost you time. The lactic acid will build in your muscles to the point where you will ultimately falter and fall off the pace, likely never to recover. Usually, taking a swim out too fast will cost you much more time than you saved by going out fast at the beginning of the race.
So, how can you know if you are swimming the pace you’re looking for during a swim? In some rare cases, it is possible to see the race clock and watch your own splits and adjust as necessary. However, it is far easier to get a coach or a friend to stand on the side of the deck, take your splits and give you previously-agreed-upon hand signals to indicate whether you should slow down, speed up or if you’re holding the desired pace.
As you near the end of the race, try to pick up your pace gradually until the finish, giving it all you have in the last few yards or meters of the race.
Strategy and execution are vitally important in all swimming events, but I believe they are even more so in distance events. It is, in large part, why I love the challenge of swimming distance so very much.
If you’ve never done a distance event before, I would encourage you to try something new and try it out! Maybe you have a hidden talent you’ve never before discovered. At the very worst, you will have a new-found appreciation for the challenge of finding and holding a particular pace for that long!