Teaching Age Group Swimmers Proper Pace Control & Race Strategy

by SwimSwam 10

December 26th, 2017 Industry, News, Training

Courtesy of Al Dodson

Pace control is certainly one of the most important skills but also most overlooked areas in teaching nine year old or older age group swimmers. I am not advocating that stroke, start, turn, and finish drills should be ignored, but that they should be integrated with pace control in developing age group swimmers. In fact, I am probably the biggest advocate for teaching stroke excellence. However, I would propose that an equal amount of time should be dedicated to teaching skill areas such as distance improvement per stroke, building, and pace control. These three areas are all inter-related and essential skills. This article will concentrate upon teaching these skills so a swimmer will be better able to control what they are accomplishing by controlling their race rather than letting it control them.

All too often, coaches are heard saying such things as “go out as hard as you can and hold on” or “I want you to sprint the whole way”. These directions couldn’t be more wrong. If senior world-class athletes can maintain maximum speed for only six seconds, young age group swimmers should not be expected to sprint an entire one hundred, two hundred, or five hundred. Instead, these swimmers should be taught to use their speed at the proper place within a particular distance. This requires a tremendous amount of instruction but can have career long results. As coaches, we all need to and be willing to spend many training sessions and hours teaching swimmers to properly control their effort and how to pace different distance swims. At the core of this method is how to build quarters of a particular race or training repeat.

The term “even pace” is confusing to young swimmers. “Even pace” indicates that a swimmer should exert the same amount of energy throughout a swim. This is not true. Equal effort throughout an event will result in declining pace. If the effort remains the same throughout the race or repeat the pace will fall off. Only building or increasing effort will result in an equal result in splits throughout a race. In a 200, the third fifty requires much more effort than the first fifty if the times are to be equal. Increased effort is necessary for even splits.

Seven major principles govern pace control in young swimmers. They are:


  • Young swimmers need to know that even world-class senior swimmers can maintain maximum speed for only six seconds
  • An increase in effort throughout a race or repeat is essential for pace control. Equal effort results in pace fall-0ff. Proper increased effort leads to even pace and possibly negative splitting.
  • Building quarters is the best way to go! The best way to teach pace control to young swimmers is to teach them to build quarters of the distance they are doing. Most younger swimmers can grasp which quarter of a race or repeat needs to be improved but would have trouble knowing what they should do on the sixth fifty or twelfth twenty-five of a five hundred.
  • Age group swimmers should be taught what the terms controlled, hard, very hard, and sprint mean for a particular distance. The following are examples:
  • The first step is the swimmer and coach determining the goal for his/her next meet. Proper pace should be determined from that goal time. Examples follow:
  • 50’s certainly should be an all-out effort, however I have coached two world-class sprinters and various others who built their first 4-6 strokes to setup their maximum effort and prevent “spinning their wheels.”
  • 100’s – each 25 should be built with the first 25 within one quarter of their best 100 time or goal 100 time minus 1-1.5 to allow for the benefit of the start and then each of the other 25’s should be built, and not exceed 25% of their best 100 or 100 goal time (e.g. to do a sub 1:10, the first 25 should not be faster than :16 or slower than :16.5 and then the effort increased and stroke rate and for each of the next 25’s so they don’t exceed :17.5).
  • 200’s –   each 50 should be built with the first 50 being within one quarter of the best 200 or their or their 200 goal time minus 1.5- 2 seconds to allow for the benefit of the start and then build each 50 so all of the next three 50’s are equal to one quarter of their best or goal time or faster (e.g. to do a sub 2:30, the first 50 should not be faster than a 35.5 or slower than :36.5 and then the effort increased to produce 3 x 50’s that aren’t slower than :37.5).
  • 500’s – following the principles of building quarters, 500’s should be split by 125’s. The first three quarters should be equal to one quarter of their best 500 time or 500 goal time (e.g. to do a sub 6:00, the first 125 should be no faster than 1:30, the next two 125’s be equal to 1:30 for each one and the last 125 should be all out and be faster than 1:30). If done correctly, the result should be a slightly negatively split swim.
  • Controlled and built kicking is essential to proper pace in freestyle and backstroke. One of the biggest errors made with age group swimmers in freestyle and backstroke is over-kicking in the early phases of the race. It is essential that this group of swimmers learn that in freestyle and backstroke, kicking does only two things: stabilizing the stroke and influencing stroke rate. If proper pace control is to be achieved, what is often labeled “steady kicking” is detrimental. An increase in kicking intensity by quarters is essential. If this concept is not followed, the result will be early exhaustion, improper stroke rate, and pace fall-off. Again, there should be a concentration on controlled, hard, very hard and sprint of the kick in freestyle and backstroke. Not only will this help to conserve energy, but also assist in an increase of stroke rate without negatively effecting stroke length.
  • Increased stroke rate and not increased stroke count is essential.
  • When first learning the concept of building quarters, swimmers often not only increase effort but also stroke count. This leads to less efficient swimming. During the increased effort, stroke should remain the same. In the beginning this may be difficult, but should be the goal of every swimmer.
  • I would recommend that swimmers count the number of strokes they take on the first length of each quarter (except the first quarter where the second length should be counted) to make sure that they don’t increase strokes per length when they increase effort and stroke rate.


Each training session for these age groups should include a technique segment (consisting of stroke, start, turn, and finish technique) and a skill development segment (including distance improvement per stroke work, and/or building quarters and pace work) in addition to training sets. Coaches should consciously emphasize the integration of what is learned in both the technique and the skill development segments into training sets (e.g. when giving direction reminders such as “5 x 200 on 4:00 making sure you have a high elbow recovery and that you build 50’s remembering 50 controlled, 50 hard, 50 very hard, and 50 sprint). Directions can be addressed to the entire group or differ for each individual.

Race Pace Training


  • Race Pace Training is training that requires and utilizes training times equal to or faster than present best race splits or desired race splits for “sub-distance” components of a race (e.g. 2 x 4 x 75 on 2:30 at 75% of goal time) or broken swims. The goal of these components should be to duplicate the desired meet goal splits for the event. Sets must be composed of “sub-distance” or broken swims so actual splits can be achieved.
  • The goal should be able to develop proper race pace so swimmers can finish races without a “pace drop-off” (e.g. the last 50 of a hundred should equal 50% of current best time or faster; or 50% of the goal time 100; or the last 100 of a 200 within 2 used for race pace seconds of the first 100 (due to the start); or a 500 or over swim should be slightly negative split with the first ¾ of the race evenly split and the last ¼ slightly faster (e.g. to break 6:00 for a 500 the splits should be 1:30, 1:30; !:30; 1:28 for each 125)
  • All pace work requires both distance improvement per stroke (dips) and teaching the skill of building quarters of the event
  • Active recovery may be used during race pace training (I would suggest stroke technique, strokes per length drills, or dips work)
  • Race Pace training requires distance improvement per stroke development
  • Race pace training requires building skill development (use of controlled, hard, very hard; and sprint)
  • Race pace training should be just that. It is not just speed work, but teaching specific and precise pace to best achieve meet goal times for each individual
  • Coaches should check and monitor each quarter and provide input on how to hit prescribed pace to swimmers


Race pace training for 50’s


  • Although, as I said previously, I believe that 50’s should be an all-out effort. I have coached two world class sprinters and others who built the first 4-6 strokes to setup their maximum effort and prevent them from “spinning their wheels.”
  • Because of this, I highly recommend working on this 4-6 stroke building for each and every start, 12 ½’ and 25’s that are done in practice.  This abbreviated speed work will help to perfect this method for meet 50’s


Race pace training for 100’s


  • Race pace training for 100’s is certainly more difficult than race pace training for longer distances. This is due that the controlled first quarter is faster and closer to an “all-out effort” than the first quarter of longer events and therefore each of the remaining quarters also must be closer to an all-out effort.
  • Example training sets include:
  • 4 x 4 x 50 on 2:00 – hard build at 50% of best 100 or goal 100 – 2:00 between sets – from a standard racing start
  • 4 x 4 x IM portion 50’s (25 fly/25 back or 25 breast/25 free) on 2:00 with 2:00 between sets – hit desired splits for each segment – fly from a standard racing start and other strokes from a legal push
  • 2 x 4 x 75 on 3:00 at 75% of best of 100 or goal 100 – 2:00 between sets – from a standard racing start
  • 2 x 4 x broken 100’s (50 – rest 10 seconds – 25 – rest 10 seconds – 25) on 4:00 – 4:30 – 2:00 between sets – from a standard racing start –  hit desired splits *
  • 2 x 4 x broken 100 IM’s (25 fly/25 back – rest 10 seconds – 25 breast – rest 10 seconds – 25 free) – on 4:00 -4:30 – 2:00 between sets – hit desired splits **
  • * alternate methods of breaking 100’s – 25/50/25 or 25/25/50
  • ** alternates of breaking 100 IM’s – 25 fly/50 back-breast/25 free o 25 fly/25 back/50 breast-free


Race pace training for 200’s


  • Race pace training for 200’s must utilize building beginning with the first 50 equaling one quarter the best 200 or goal 200 minus 1 ½ – 2 seconds and built so that each of the last three quarters equal one quarter of the best or goal 200 time.
  • Race pace sets include:
  • 4 x 4 x 50s on 2:00 at ¼ of 200 goal time – 2:00 between sets
  • 2 x 4 x broken 200’s (100 – 10 sec. rest – 50 – rest 10 sec. – 50) on 6:00 – at goal pace for 200’s – the first 50 should not be faster than 1 ½ – 2 seconds than ¼ of the goal time and the last three quarters should equal ¼ of the 200 goal time
  • 2 x 4 x broken 200’s from a push (4 x 50 with 10 sec. rest) 0n 6:00 – all 4 x 50 should = ¼ 200 goal time
  •              {Broken 200 (100 – 10 sec. rest – 100)}


2 x     {Broken 150 (100 – 10 sec. rest – 50)}      all at 200 goal pace; all on 5:00

{Broken 100 (50 – 10 sec. rest – 50)}


  • 4 x 200 glance split at 100 and even split on 6:00


Race pace training for 500 and above


  • Training race pace for distances of 400 meters and above is essential. The suggestions below are for 500’s but the principles can easily adapted for all distance events. Building quarters is extremely important. The concept of controlled, hard, very hard, and sprint must be taught and emphasized.
  • Race pace sets include:
  • 3 – 5 broken 500’s (125 – 30 sec. rest – 125 – 30 sec. rest – 125 – 10 second rest – 125) on 12:00 – the first 3 x 125’s = even splits and the fourth 125 = 1-2 seconds faster – all at goal 500 pace
  • Broken 500 at 12:00}


Broken 375 on 9:00} all with 30 sec. rest at 125; all at 500 pace

Broken 250 on 6:00}



  • 500’s with glance split at 250 and slightly negative split


In conclusion, 9-year-old and older swimmers are certainly capable of learning proper pace control. It is the responsibility of coaches to teach swimmers to grasp the essentials of success. It is the author’s opinion that the concept of building ¼’s is the easiest and the best way to teach how to properly pace distances of 100 yards or more. This concept lets swimmers examine and modify a limited number of variables, hence simplifying the process. Sets and repeats should reflect the principles behind this concept. You will be surprised how quickly swimmers will pick up the concept of building if we, as coaches, teach it properly. Soon, controlled, hard, very hard, and sprint will become part of their swimming vocabulary as well as their work habits. The results will be proper pace control and race strategy.

About Al Dodson

Extensive experience in coaching and aquatic administration at the international, national, club, high school, and collegiate levels. During this time, I have coached seven swimmers who were ranked in the top twenty-five in the world, ten athletes who have qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials, ten athletes who qualified for their nations’ Olympic Teams, three swimmers who were ranked in the top ten triathletes in the world (one was a six-time world champion), one swimmer who won four National and Pan-Pacific Championships, thirty seven athletes who became NCAA All-Americans, nine athletes who set sixteen Junior National Records and over eighty swimmers who were ranked in the national top twenty-five.  In addition, I have run swimming camps and clinics for over twenty-five years, and have produced and narrated a stroke instruction videotape featuring Olympic Gold Medalist and World Record Holder, Tracy Caulkins. In addition, I have had a number of articles published by the Australian Swimming Coaches and Teachers Association, the British Swimming Coaches and Teachers Association, the International Society for Biomechanics in Sports and the American Swimming Coaches Association. I have long been recognized for my technical expertise and success at all levels.

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Raúl Arellano
2 years ago

Thanks Al, very interesting and well organised.

Jacquie Strebe
5 years ago

How can sets like these be designed for a practice with 25 swimmers who have different goal times. Using perceived effort? Having swimmers do their own math on the clock?

5 years ago

THanks so much for this article! I’ve been struggling to not die in my own races and will use this in my own training

Al Dodson
Reply to  Kari
5 years ago

Kari ~ Believe me it will work. If you have questions, feel free to ask at [email protected]

5 years ago

Does this principle carry on to longer events, like the 1000 and the 1650? We have swimmers trying those events at 12 or 13 and it’s hard to work through a strategy with them. Thanks for the article!

Al Dodson
Reply to  CoachK
5 years ago

Definitely, in fact the longer the distance, the more important the building quarters is. I use it all the time. If you have any questions just ask. You can ask at this site or contact me at [email protected]

Orange Marlin
5 years ago

Great article!! Al, you presented information very well! This article should be a must-read for coaches even if it’s just a refresher. I have heard the point about kicking only providing stability and tempo control before but, I was wondering what scientific studies have been done that show there is zero propulsion generated from the legs during a swim. My understanding is that there is force sensor data showing that the legs/feet apply a force to the water while kicking. If the surface applying the force is at an angle relative to the body line then a component of that force will generate a force that provides propulsion in addition to a component that will provide lift/stability. Could you elaborate… Read more »

Al Dodson
Reply to  Orange Marlin
5 years ago

As I mentioned originally in my reply, I am not aware of any recent scientific studies. With or without the studies the same principles apply to kicking as the rest of the stroke. Minimize the amount of energy expended early in the race and build the kick by quarters as you go. You certainly don’t want to use all your energy early in the race and kicking certainly can be tiring.

5 years ago

Excellent article Al. Thank you for the contribution on an often overlooked topic.

Al Dodson
Reply to  DLC
5 years ago