How to Employ Perfect Pace Work In Swimming

Chris O' Linger, assistant coach, Incarnate Word swimming & diving. (Image courtesy of UIW)

Chris O’ Linger, assistant coach, Incarnate Word swimming & diving. (Image courtesy of UIW)

SwimSwam contributor Chris O’Linger is an assistant coach at the University of the Incarnate Word.

Pace is a term swim coaches dream each of their mid-distance and distance swimmers have in their vocabulary, but most coaches wait until weeks before a championship meet to use sets to recognize pace. Muscle memory is not acquired overnight, nor will it ever improve if pace work sets are utilized incorrectly. For athletes first exploring distance events, the easiest way to convey the concept of pace is to “quarter” their races (Dodson, 2004). Blurting out random splits for the twelfth or thirteen hundred of a 1650 is useless if the “quarters” have not first been mastered. A common misconception of pace is the effort an athlete should have to exert to hold a standard pace in practices or performances (Dodson, 2004). In a true distance athlete, the effort will increase as the race progresses, in response to biological factors and diminishing energy. Pace work should be incorporated into daily training regiments to keep the athletes familiar with the “feel” of certain speeds, but the proper energy systems must be activated to effectively ingrain these “feels” overtime.

Multiple routes must be used to help an athlete recognize certain paces, including extended swims, descending sets, and raw pace sets (Dodson, 2004). An extended swim will help swimmers’ bodies adapt to the progression of longer events, and will allow for more semantically developmental aspects of distance swimming (progressive effort, oxygen deprivation, recruitment of aerobic systems, and consistent stroke count) to become familiar. Descending sets are a tool prescribed to allow swimmers to relate the feel of their pace to the feel of paces much slower or quicker, making it easier to recognize necessary effort levels to hold a pace at a meet. Raw pace sets are usually broken swims or shortened durational distances, mainly used prior to championship meets to activate muscle memory and display the relative increase in effort needed to sustain a formidable pace. In every single one of these sets described, it is important to have a consistent stroke count to ensure that as an athlete’s effort increases, the energy expended during the independent stroke cycles is constant (Dodson, 2004).

Biologically, the chemical synapses inside a human body are complex and bidirectional. During pace work sets, retrograde signals are relayed from the post-synaptic receptor to pre-synaptic receptors to communicate on the development of a synapse (synaptogenesis) and activity thereafter (plasticity) (Dow). Camkinases are calcium-sensitive proteins that are released during the formation of muscle memory. The main thing to remember during muscle memory encoding is to achieve consistent pace during the “active zone” in which camkinases are inhibited, but not overexpressed (Dow). In other words, pace is a word many swimmers associate with success or failure. In order to get the most production out of your anaerobic pace training, discover your athlete’s “zone” on an individual basis (Dow). Every swimmer should be pushed to a high effort to hit pace, but excessive energy and time spent on repeatedly forging higher and higher efforts to achieve the desired splits will only inhibit a swimmer in muscle memory development. Our coaching staff at the University of the Incarnate Word train our mid-distance and distance swimmers to recognize pace, trying to achieve efforts similar to those experienced in a race. Our extended swims will be modified by hitting Pace +2-4 seconds, and the focus will be on cognitive and semantic factors, whereas our descending and raw pace sets will revolve around realistic progressions of effort, never overextending the thresholds that will be required for a championship race. Psychologically, an athlete who continually experiences constant success on achieving a goal pace is a happy and confident competitor, and an athlete who does not experience constant success in pace work tends to exhibit more anxiety and less confidence in their abilities when the lights come on during taper season.

We are currently progressing into regular season training at this point in our season, and this is a set we ran for our distance group today:

10 x 300 (1650 pace +:04/100) @ 3:30

            Focus on turns, walls, and stroke count


{ 500 aerobic with paddles @ 6:00}

{ 8 x 50 (Descend 1-3, hold 1650 pace 4-8) @ :40}

{ 100 active recovery @ 1:20}


{ 150 accelerate into walls at 1650 pace/10m underwater off walls @ 1:50 }

{ 100 active recovery @ 1:20}


Dodson, A. (2004). Muscle memory. Journal of Experimental Biology, 207 (1), 11.

Chris O' Linger, graduate assistant coach, Incarnate Word swimming & diving. (Image courtesy of UIW)

Chris O’ Linger, assistant coach, Incarnate Word swimming & diving. (Image courtesy of UIW)

Dow, J. The key to teaching age group distance swimmers proper pace. Journal of International

            Society of Swimming Coaching, 2 (1), 46-49.

About Chris O’Linger via UIW

O’Linger is an assistant coach for the Incarnate Word swimming and diving program.  He swam collegiately at both the University of Florida and University of Tampa.  He earned a degree in social psychology from Tampa.  He is studying kinesiology.

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Whoa this is great! So scientific!

Glad you enjoyed it. Is ECU for East Carolina?


Loved the article and approach to distance swimming. Really like the method of hitting pace +2-4 and keeping pace a positive association. It’d be cool to hear some more of your stuff!


Your “pace” article was excellent, substantive and insightful

Thank you,

Larry Day

(810) 853-1159

About Gold Medal Mel Stewart

Gold Medal Mel Stewart

MEL STEWART Jr., aka Gold Medal Mel, won three Olympic medals at the 1992 Olympic Games. Mel's best event was the 200 butterfly. He is a former World, American, and NCAA Record holder in the 200 butterfly. As a writer/producer and sports columnist, Mel has contributed to Yahoo Sports, Universal Sports, …

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