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.


  1. Chris: do you see any events at the Olympic level where the pacing is poor? Meaning, what events could potentially follow in the 200 breast's footsteps?

  2. Off the top of my head both 400 IMs could improve significantly with better pacing. I think that both Ye Shiwen and Ryan Lochte made the opposite mistake. Both Lochte and Phelps always take the 400 IM out pretty aggressively, its partly a psychological ploy as they get so far ahead that their competitors don't think they can catch them. Its really a 300m race for both of them, and Hagino and Pereira kept their cool this year, which is how they ended up beating Phelps. Shiwen, on the other hand, was too conservative and had way too much at the end (I'm aware that others think something was at play).

    I honestly think Sun Yang can significantly lower his records with more even pacing, his last 50 shows that he is not swimming to his potential before that.

    1. I have been playing around with IM splits. Not sure Ye Shiwen's might not be the best way to go. Always figure my swimmers should be able to come home faster in freestyle than they do. They use so much energy in Breast (our worst stroke) they do not have enough left for free (faster velocity stroke). Might be something we play around with.
      Breaststroke for Soni was perfect and will help us so much in training pace.

    2. I thought the same thing after last summer. I thought for sure he would break 14:30 in London if he swam it smarter. Both swims were great, don't get me wrong. But both swims, as a coach, I wanted to knock him upside the head. Especially at Worlds. This is exciting stuff, evidence that when you really swim smart you can do incredible things, like break 2:20 in the 200 breast as a female. Can't wait to see her and others push the envelope further. Who needs shinny suits, right Mr. Leonard and Mr. Lord?!

  3. i think that we have a preconceived notion about pacing that the chinese are throwing out the window. even splitting in distance races does not seem to work for sun yang, i don't have any copies of his splits over the course of his career, but look at his closing 100 of 200, 400 and 1500 at london. clearly he manages his speed well. his 1500 final 100 (53.49)27.81/25.68. 400 (53.50) 27.10/26.40. 200 (53.71)26.71/27.00. there is no question that his race strategy works in the 1500, as he has now broken a ~10 year world record 2x.

    so as you see here, he has the fastest 50 of his closing 100's in the 1500. in the 200, where he attempts to go out faster, he actually has the slowest closing 50 of the 3. Its like lochte in the 400 free relay, swimming a faster pace does different things to your body. I think Sun has it down well.

    i reflect to my own personal training as a measly masters swimmer. i consider myself a bit of a swim whore, I train a lot of diferent places, mostly self training but I do swim with the club I coach sometimes and a masters group. I’ve been watching sun yang since he broke that world record and trying to implement the back half loading into my training and racing. I was doing 400m repeats at club practice, and I was constantly coming back from behind to beat the club swimmers. I was going out so slow that the person starting 10 seconds behind me was catching me. Coach kept telling me I needed to take it out faster to swim faster times. Hes pretty respectful of my training, but he skeptical of my strategy, anyway, taking it out faster caused me to swim slower. That’s my personal experience. At nationals this year I attempted to pace my first 50 as the fastest (cuz of the dive) and my last 50 the 2nd fastest in my freestyles and I was quite surprised with how well it worked. I exceeded my goals in the 1000 and 500. Didn’t quite nail it in the 200.
    I think we will see a complete overhaul of racing strategies in the distance events, as I train with some of the top masters swimmers who have been experimenting with back half loading as a way to maintain time later in life. This is masters swimming, so you have to think a lot of us coach youth swimming. I think we’re going to see more even splitting in 200 strokes as desantis points out and more back end speed in the distance events, both in long course and short course.

    so as you see here, he has the fastest 50 of his closing 100's in the 1500. in the 200, where he attempts to go out faster, he actually has the slowest closing 50 of the 3. Its like lochte in the 400 free relay, swimming a faster pace does different things to your body. I think Sun has it down well.

    i reflect to my own personal training as a measly masters swimmmer. i consider myself a bit of a swim whore, i mostly self train, but