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Home / Training / Swim / Chrissie Wellington’s Guide to the Open Water Pt 4: Pacing

Chrissie Wellington’s Guide to the Open Water Pt 4: Pacing

Pacing is critical no matter what your ability, and you need to assess your strengths in relation to the race distance. Here's how…

Issue ID: June 2012

Pacing is critical no matter what your ability, and you need to assess your strengths in relation to the race distance.

When competing at an Olympic- or sprint-distance race, the swim pace tends to be higher, and the outcome of the swim is more critical to your overall success than if you’re racing a long-course event. Here’s what to do…

It’s important to remember that pool swimming can be very different to open-water swimming, in terms of strategy, pacing and technique. For triathlon swimming we need a technique that is both fast and efficient, allows us to best cope with the often chaotic conditions of open water, that is not easily disrupted by other swimmers and that also enables us to conserve energy for the bike and run to follow.

As a beginner, I’d suggest starting out, and staying, at a steady and relaxed pace. Starting out too hard on the swim will cause your heart rate to ‘spike’ or shoot up to anaerobic levels, leaving you in oxygen debt at the onset of the race and forcing you to try and ‘catch your breath’ during the ‘settling in’ period.

If you find yourself panicking, try not to immediately flip over onto your back and take large gasps of air. This can cause hyperventilation, causing your heart rate to quickly increase and dizziness. Instead, stay face-down, turn your head to get a good breath of air, then put your face in the water, and focus on blowing bubbles at a steady rate in order to regulate your breathing and calm yourself.

If you want to stop, slowly twist your head to the side, breathe, lift your head out of the water, and either do a few strokes of breaststroke or tread water. Then take long slow breaths, look around, find your bearings and slowly start swimming again when you feel ready.

More experienced swimmers should swim hard for the first 200m to place yourself within a fast swim pack. This means about 75-80% of your maximum 50m effort. You can then settle into your ‘race pace’, which you would have determined, and internalised, in training. It’s therefore key that you use training sessions in the pool to know your race pace and rhythm.

Chrissie’s training tip

For Ironman training I like to do 40 sets of 100m (so just over the 3.8km race distance) at my race pace with short recovery. If my race pace is 1:20-1:21mins per 100m, this means doing 40 x 100m coming in on 1:20-1:21mins going off a 1:25min send off. I try to hit the same time for every repeat, rather than starting out fast and then fading towards the end of the set. This enables me to ‘internalise’ my race pace, and also gives me the confidence that I can complete the distance at that sustained pace.

It’s also important for more advanced swimmers to practise fast starts. This may mean doing a short warm-up, and then 8-12 x 25m sprints, or 5-6 x 50m sprints, with about 5-10secs recovery to replicate the need to go hard for the first 200m of the race (and accelerating out of turn buoys). You can then follow this with some race-pace swimming.

Photo: Earl Basden

Profile image of Chrissie Wellington Chrissie Wellington Triathlon legend


Chrissie Wellington OBE is a retired, British professional triathlete and four-time Ironman world champion. ​ She held all three world and championship records relating to ironman triathlon races: firstly, the overall world record, secondly, the Ironman World Championship course record, and thirdly, the official world record for all Ironman-branded triathlon races over the full Ironman distance. She remains the world record holder for Ironman distance (8:18hrs). Chrissie won the Ironman World Championship in three consecutive years (2007–2009), but could not start the 2010 World Championship race because of illness. She regained the title in 2011. She is the first British athlete to hold the Ironman world title, and was undefeated in all 13 of her races over the Iron distance. She is the only triathlete, male or female, to have won the World Championship less than a year after turning professional, an achievement described by the British Triathlon Federation as "a remarkable feat, deemed to be a near impossible task for any athlete racing as a rookie at their first Ironman World Championships." Since retiring in 2012 Chrissie has completed countless endurance events, from cycling sportives, to marathons and ultra-marathons and even a cross country ski marathon or two! Chrissie was awarded a first-class degree by the University of Birmingham (BsC Geography) in 1998 and a Distinction from the University of Manchester (MA Econ Development Studies) in 2000. ​ Prior to becoming a professional athlete in 2007, she worked for the British Government's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) as a policy adviser on international development and also managed water and sanitation projects in Nepal. Chrissie now devotes her life to work to improve individual and population health and wellbeing, and specifically interventions to increase participation in physical activity. She is the Global Lead for Health and Wellbeing for parkrun and is committed to engaging people of all backgrounds, ages and abilities in parkrun events, thereby addressing the entrenched health and wellbeing inequalities that impact many countries across the world. Chrissie published her Sunday Times Best Selling autobiography, 'A Life Without Limits', in 2012, and her second book, 'To the Finish Line: A World Champion Triathlete's Guide to Your Perfect Race', in 2017. In 2021, she co-authored and published two fully-illustrated children's wellbeing storybooks with friend and former athlete Susie Bush-Ramsey entitled 'You're so strong' and 'You're so amazing', as a means of sharing messages about belief, trust, love, friendship, trying your best and embracing change. ​ A trailblazer at heart, Chrissie is often advocating for change. In 2014 she joined three professional cyclists in campaigning for and successfully creating a women’s race at the Tour De France. Chrissie was appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in the 2010 Birthday Honours and Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 2016 New Year Honours for services to sport and charity. She was also named the 2009 Sunday Times Sportswoman of the Year and has Honorary Doctorates from the University of Birmingham and the University of Bristol. Chrissie lives with her husband, former professional athlete Tom Lowe, and their daughter Esme in a small village in Somerset.