Richard Smith shows you how to get used to your race pace in the pool so you can get it right on race day.

Learn to pace yourself and you'll be faster and more efficient come race day

Getting your pacing right in a triathlon swim is not only the key to achieving a great swim split, it is also the difference between setting up a great race, rather than an average one. Have you ever looked at your results to find that your swim times were down on your training times, or started your swim well only to have a line of athletes pass you towards the later stages? Common errors include setting unrealistic race times from extrapolated interval swim times; poor pace control; and starting too fast, resulting in a lack of oxygen getting to the working muscles, early specific fatigue and technique failure.

Developing good pace control in swimming is potentially more difficult than in biking and running because, when swimming, ‘continuous’ feedback of time, distance and speed isn’t easily readable from watches or computers. This is further compounded, especially in open water, by water conditions, currents and navigational errors. Paced swim training aids such as the Tempo Trainer and Swimsense performance monitor (see are available, but learning to use pace clocks, focusing on perceived effort at different swim speeds, and regularly practising target race-paced swimming will help you dial into your race pace and get it right on the big day.
The key to good pace control is to develop a set of ‘swimming gears’ and to consistently know what each gear feels like over different distances. Ideally, you should be able to swim at an easy recovery pace, a steady aerobic pace, a sustainable tempo race pace, a faster-than-race-pace effort swim and a sprint.

To identify your target race pace, complete shorter and race-distance time trials such as a timed 200m and 400m swim, or a timed 500m and 1,000m swim to assess whether pacing and/or swim fitness is an issue. You should also identify a 100m interval pace that you can sustain with five- to ten-second rest intervals. From this data you should be able to estimate a realistic target race time.
To practise target race-paced swimming, calculate back from your target race time to a time per length and for a range of intervals 50m, 100m and so on. For example 400m target time 7mins=1:45min/100m, 52.5secs/50m, 26.25/ 25m. Swimming 25m at this target pace should feel relaxed and easy, and if your target time is realistic, swimming repeat 100m intervals at this pace should feel like a controlled effort, but sustainable.

Example swim set one (below) uses the shorter 25m swims to get you into your target race pace. If you can consistently get within one second over 25m then you are more likely to swim consistent 50m, 100m and longer. Alongside race-paced sessions, practise swimming through your ‘gears’, especially those either side of your race pace. Example swim set two (below) builds through a set of 100m to just faster than race pace, then holds target race pace, and then eases down to just below race pace. Similarly, practise negative splitting swims: swimming the second half of a timed swim slightly faster than the first.

Swimming to pace and using your ‘swimming gears’ should be a part of almost every session. Developing good pace control is an important discipline, takes time and patience and, as the season approaches, race pace swim sets should be included in your weekly programme.

Having developed controlled race-paced swimming it is important on race day to be confident and race your own race. Don’t go off too hard. Settle into your race pace with the aim of controlling your speed for an even-paced swim or negative split.

Example Swim Set 1
Target race pace awareness swim session

Warm Up
Main Set

  •     16x25m at target 400m race pace+5-10secs
  •     8x50m at target 400m race pace 10secs
  •     4x100m at target 400m race pace+10-15secs
  •     2x200m at target 400m race pace+10-15secs
  •     +1min additional rest after each block of 400m

Warm Down

Example Swim Set 2
Developing ‘gears’ and race pace control

Warm Up
Main Set

  •     4x100m 1-4 progressively increasing speed by
  •     2secs per 100m+10secs rest (hitting race pace
  •     on 3rd rep)
  •     4x100m 1-4 easing down from just faster than
  •     race pace by 2secs per 100

Warm Down

This article was originally published in Triathlon Plus magazine. Save time and money by having every issue delivered to your door or digital device by subscribing to the print edition or buying digitally through Zinio or Apple Newsstand.

You’ll find loads more triathlon training advice in’s Training Zone section.