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Open water racing & pacing

Last week we posted a question about open water racing and pacing on our Facebook page: “Someone who you think you have a chance of beating has raced out in front of you and opened up a 5m gap just after the start of the race – what do you do?”
The answer, clearly, depends on a whole range of factors as the variety of responses showed. Most importantly, what are your own objectives? Are you in it to win it, hoping to beat your training partner or just aiming to finish?
So we can’t give a definitive answer but we can make some suggestions on how you might think about open water racing and pacing to help you come up with an answer appropriate to your situation.
There are two competing forces here, which is part of what makes open water racing so fascinating.
The first is that experience and conventional wisdom strongly suggests that the fastest way to cover the distance in an endurance event is through even pacing or negative splitting. What this means is that either you maintain the same speed throughout or you complete the second half faster than the first. If you look at 50m splits for 800m and 1500m swims in the pool you will see that this is the strategy pursued by elite swimmers. Starting faster than your sustainable pace will usually result in a painful and slow race.
On the other hand, in open water, there are huge benefits to drafting – or swimming in someone else’s slipstream.
At the elite level the drafting benefits are usually far more important than even pacing, which is why you rarely see long-range lone breaks on the world cup series and why the top swimmers are usually separated by seconds or even tenths of seconds after nearly two hours of racing.
James Parrack from the BEST Swim Centre recently posted an interview with Jack Burnell and Keri-anne Payne where they talk about this and the importance, in their training, of practising unexpected changes of pace. You have to be with the main pack for any chance of winning.
At the amateur level, the dynamics are very different. Firstly, swimmers’ speeds vary much more widely than at the elite level; secondly, many people are not actively trying to win the race outright; thirdly, some amateur swimmers are very bad at pace judgement.
Elite swimmers therefore have the easier decision (although it may be harder to implement): if someone makes a break for it you do what you can to stay with them.
At the amateur level, the decision is much more complicated. When someone races off, questions you might ask yourself include:
1)      Is this person an enthusiastic fool who’s going to blow up after 100m: is chasing him (or her) just going to waste energy without gaining anything?
2)      Is this person in my category? Am I actually racing against them? If they beat me will it ruin my chances of a prize?
3)      Do I really want to bust a gut today or do I just want to enjoy the swim?
4)      Are there other tactical considerations? Will following this person give me more space at turns and reduce how often I need to sight?
5)      What will my mates think if I try to chase this person down, blow up and end up coming last?
One of the great things about open water racing is the opportunity it gives us to engage in these tactical questions. If you get things right in open water it’s possible to beat people who are on paper (or at least in the pool) faster than you. On the other hand, if you don’t want to race, you can still have a very enjoyable and satisfying swim at your own pace, making the most of the sights and sensations of being outside and in the water. Pool swimming doesn’t really offer you either of those.
As usual, we’d love to hear what you think. Post a comment, send us an email, tweet us or put something on our Facebook page.
Image: Me at Shepperton after the 3k swim that prompted the Facebook post. I chased after someone who took off fast at the beginning but then dropped back after about 300m. I expended the energy but didn’t get to enjoy the drafting benefits, and paid for it later. © Salim Ahmed, Swim Lab

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I created Outdoor Swimmer in 2011 (initially as H2Open Magazine) as an outlet for my passion for swimming outdoors. I've been a swimmer and outdoor swimmer for as long as I remember. Swimming has made a huge difference to my life and I want to share its joys and benefits with as many people as possible. I am also the author of Swim Wild & Free: A Practical Guide to Swimming Outdoors 365 a Year and I provide one-to-one support to swimmers through Swim Mentoring.