Friday, August 10, 2012
Pacing: Why Women's 200 Breast Took The Big Leap
Watching the Olympics is an awesome experience for a coach. It is the highest level competition for our sport, and there is a lot to admire and aspire too. But even the most elite swimming in the world is not perfect, and the Olympics are a reminder that we are still really far from the limits of swimming performance. One of the events that best tell this story is the women's 200 breaststroke. All three m
medalists were faster than the medalists in the previous "suited" Olympics. How could that be?
The answer is pacing. Prior to this Olympic cycle the women's 200 breaststroke was being paced really poorly at the international level. Pacing is a pretty fundamental skill in swimming, so you would think that sort of thing wouldn't happen at the highest level, but it does. In the case of the women's 200 breaststroke, swimmers were taking the race out far too aggressively. No swimmer illustrates this better than your new double Olympic champion and world record holder Rebecca Soni.
Lets start in 2008. Soni wins the 200 breaststroke at the Olympics, her breakout international swim. She sets the world record in the process. Here are her splits from that race:
The world record and Olympic gold obscure what is a poorly paced race. The first 50 is too fast (just .5 slower than she took out the 100 earlier in the meet), and she spends the rest of the race slowing down. Soni's pacing problems came back to haunt her at the following summer's World Championship. She finished a disappointing 4th, here are those splits:
If the pacing of her Beijing race was just "poor", this is disastrous pacing. A two second plus dropoff from the 2nd to the 3rd fifty and then a total collapse on the final lap. But Soni wasn't alone- many of her competitors suffered less significant slowing down over each lap of the race.
After that experience, Soni seemed to take stock and made a conscious effort to improve her race strategy. She spent much of the year dropping high level elite times in the 200 breaststroke, with varying race strategies. At the 2010 Pan Pacific Championships, her winning time was somewhat slower than she had swam many times that season, but a change in strategy was very evident. Here are those splits:
The slow 3rd lap is reminiscent of a race taken out too hard, but in fact Soni has held off far more than in other races. She has too much energy for the final length, swimming faster than either of the two preceding laps.
Before we get to this year's Olympic race, its important to recognize why even elite swimmers like Rebecca Soni can struggle with pacing. Swimmers often base their pace on the competitors around them, rather than their own sense of pace. Therefore, if the perceived leader is taking the race out hard, other swimmers will feel pressure to follow in order to stay "in the race". A great example of this phenomenon from London was Lotte Friis' 800 meter swim, where Lotte perceived she could win and pressured herself to maintain contact with Katie Ledecky. Ledecky, it turns out, was having an all time great swim and Friis cost herself a medal by taking the race out in 4:06 (her best in the 400 was 4:03.9). Swimmers are also often overwhelmed by adrenaline and throw any training pace out the window.
Rebecca Soni swam a really well paced 200 breaststroke to win the London gold, and because she was the favorite she pulled a number of other swimmers to well paced races behind her. That resulted in perhaps the fastest final of the entire meet. Soni's splits from London:
A coaches dream! The split between the 1st and 2nd 50 is just about three seconds, and the next two fifties are nearly identical. Rebecca Soni's near perfect pacing was the difference in her setting the world record. Now look at the splits of Suzuki for silver:
A slightly larger jump to the 2nd lap but otherwise stunning. Here is Efimova for 3rd:
A little unaggressive but still significantly better than Soni's pacing in any non-London race above. Finally, the Danish heartbreak for Pedersen in 4th:
Slightly better than Efimova's, the absolute race of her life (she was 2:24.8 at World's in 2011), faster than the silver and bronze medalists from Beijing. No dice.
This race was an absolute joy to watch- elite athletes squeezing out near the absolute top of their potential in the biggest race, and an important reminder of just how important a simple thing like pacing can be.
Posted by Chris DeSantis at 11:23 AM