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