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Building a Relative, Rather Than Absolute, Race Strategy

Mar 5, 2014  - Elliot Meena, The Swim Scout

What is your race strategy? Out fast and just try to survive? Are you a closer who builds your race the whole way through? Or, better yet, do you even have a strategy?

There is no arguing that records have been broken via a multitude of race strategies, or lack thereof, but one could argue that most swimmers train for races in a similar manner, and that is from an energy conservation standpoint.

One of the most demoralizing things to happen to a swimmer, or any athlete for that matter, is to be caught and ultimately beaten. It tells those watching that the winner was clearly more disciplined and that the loser was inexperienced and let nerves get the best of them. Is this always true? Of course not, however that doesn’t matter in a society that loves to jump to conclusions.

But, I digress.

No swimmer is ever coached to fly and die, at least not at a shave and taper meet, and that makes sense. If executed accordingly, a race that has the proper distribution of energy and tighter split ranges is far more lethal than one that is put together by nerves with a wider gap in between splits. Our bodies are conditioned to slowly disperse energy over the course of the race, rather than all at once.

For example, at the 2004 Summer Olympics, Ian Thorpe and Klete Keller both anchored their countries 4 x 200 Freestyle Relays the night after they placed 1st and 4th in the individual 200 Freestyle event, respectively.

On the relay, Thorpe dove in 1.48 seconds behind Keller and cut 0.98 seconds off that deficit in the first 50. However, his second 50 was 2.72 seconds slower than his first, and 11% increase, whereas in his individual event his second 50 was only 1.42 seconds slower than his first, a 6% increase.

Keller, on the other hand, split 1.84 seconds slower on his second 50 in the relay, a 7% increase, as opposed to only a 1.27 differential, or 5%, in his individual race.

As a result, Thorpe was never able to finish closing the gap and the American’s went on to pull off the upset.

My point, swimmers have to keep their composure, just like Will Ferrell said.

Now I am not saying that nerves don’t play a large factor in athletics. I am a huge believer in the mental “X” factor that allows for some of the most spectacular races to be performed given special circumstances, but I do believe that you cannot train, prepare, or depend on this “X” factor. Every time you dive in the water you should have the same strategy in mind that you spent the entire season training for, regardless of the circumstances. Come taper time, swimming is far more mental than physical and therefore you should trust that your strategy will produce the best time possible on that day.

Now what should your strategy be you ask? Great question. In keeping with the 200 strategy theme, but shifting focus to yards to correlate with the upcoming NCAA Championships, let’s compare the 200-yard race strategies of a long-axis vs. short-axis stroke.

Back in the day, my best event was the 200 Butterfly, but I also swam the 200 Freestyle occasionally, and the 200 race strategy that I trained for, regardless of stroke, was:

1st 50 = Baseline
2nd 50 = Baseline + 1.5 seconds
3rd 50 = Baseline + 1.0 seconds
4th 50 = Baseline + 0.5 seconds

The math would tell you that this means, regardless of stroke, you were supposed to split your race evenly, front to back. However, diving deeper into the different split breakdown across strokes tells us something different. Let’s look at, for example, a breakdown of the two following events:

1) Men’s 200-Yard Freestyle
2) Men’s 200-Yard Butterfly

For this case study, I analyzed the top five finishers from each of the past four NCAA D1 Championships (2010-2013) which equates to a sample size of 20 unique swims for each event.

Men’s 200-yard Freestyle (Average time of the 20 unique swims)
1st 50 = 21.77
2nd 50 = 23.49 (increase from 1st 50 = 1.72 seconds / 7.9%)
3rd 50 = 23.72 (increase from 1st 50 = 1.95 seconds / 9.0%)
4th 50 = 24.05 (increase from 1st 50 = 2.28 seconds / 10.5%)
Final Time = 1:33.03

Men’s 200-yard Butterfly (Average time of the 20 unique swims)
1st 50 = 22.90
2nd 50 = 25.96 (increase from 1st 50 = 3.06 seconds / 13.4%)
3rd 50 = 26.13 (increase from 1st 50 = 3.23 seconds / 14.1%)
4th 50 = 26.66 (increase from 1st 50 = 3.76 seconds / 16.4%)
Final Time = 1:41.65

Conclusion: even the best swimmers in the country, for both long and short-axis strokes, do not descend their 50’s throughout a 200, and in fact they ascend their 50’s which is pretty interesting considering I have never heard a coach tell their swimmers the last 50 should be their slowest.

Additionally, a 1.5 second increase in the second 50 for a 200 means that for freestyle, the first and second 50’s should be 18.99 and 20.49 seconds (7.8% increase) and for butterfly they should be 11.19 and 12.60 seconds (13.4% increase), respectively.

Now we all know those splits are inconceivable! (←’The Princess Bride’ fan in me cannot say that work without exclamation), so the moral of this case study is the importance of establishing a race strategy based on a relative percent basis, and not on absolute seconds.

As my dad use to say to me, “you have to swim in your own lane.” He also used to say that I should “swim like there is a shark in my lane”, but I think in this particular case the former makes a little more sense. Each swimmer is different, each stroke is different, and no two races are the same, so regardless of skill level you should be tailoring your race around your own ability, which is why a race strategy based on relative percent’s make more sense.

At the end of the day the above percentages may not be right for everyone, for example Ricky Berens took his American Record 1:31.31 200 Freestyle out a little bit quicker than average, and ‘descended’ his next three 50’s (0.12 seconds delta between the three) , but then again you are not Ricky Berens. If you want to piece together the perfect race, then I suggest you follow the masses and start with what, on average, some of the best swimmers in the country have been doing over the past four years. This could mean that you need to slow down your first 50 to make sure more is left in the tank at the end, or it could also mean you need to go out faster because if you always close strong then you did not properly distribute your energy to the earlier part of the race.

This baseline race strategy will serve as a platform of confidence for you when you dive in and the race is out of your body’s control and into the control of your mind. Swimmers spend too many hours in the pool, missing out on sleep, to just leave their season up to chance and hope come taper time.

Source: Omega Timing, Swimming World Magazine