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Earlier this year, Dr. John covered pacing physiology and methods to improve race pacing (Pacing 101 and Pacing 101 Part II).  In sum, even pacing has the strongest support, but competition tactics and stroke specialties in the IMs may warrant deviation.  In this article we’ll expand on this topic reviewing empirical studies on pacing, both in the lab and in the field.  Despite any information here, always consider individual variation, as splits collected from competitions and practice time trials will yield clues for individual swimmers.  Experimenting with different strategies is useful in minor meets.  

Before we examine competition studies, we’ll begin with one lab study.  Thompson 2003 studied non-elite male breaststrokers who performed a 200m time trial, then three 175m trials 72 hrs later.  The 175m trials included an even paced swim, a fast start, and a fast finish, with each trial spaced 48 hrs apart to ensure no recovery issues.  Each time trial was equally timed but completed in random order.  Most significantly, the even paced trial produced lowest peak blood lactate and ratings of perceived exertion.  Interestingly, turning times exhibited a significant slowing from start to finish comparing the fast start trial to the evenly paced and fast finish trials, perhaps indicating that swimmers are using turns to rest while maintaining velocity in the center of the pool.

Mauger (2012) collected a sample with 264 international competition swims at 400m freestyle by both genders.  Although the sample overlapped suit eras, authors found no impact of suit makeup on race strategy.   Authors found that a “fast start followed by even pacing” and “parabolic pacing” (fast start, slower middle, fast finish) were the most common pacing strategies, but did not study correlations with time/placing.

IM’s are their own unique animals due to variation in stroke specialties.  Saavedra (2012) studied elite 200/400IM performances of both men and women (1,643 total swims) at major competitions (Olympics, US Olympic Trials, Australian Trials, among others) from 2000-2011.  Overall, the men favored a fast start strategy (positive pacing) and women favored fast finish strategies (negative pacing).  Comparing medalists, backstroke pacing was the most significant differentiator in men, with backstroke and free most significant in women.  Looking beyond medalists, breaststroke pacing was the greatest differentiator of performance for men, with freestyle most significant for women.

Robertson (2009) studied top 16 finishers in nine international competitions in all events 100m through 400m events and noted the following findings…

  • last lap had the strongest relationship with final time in all 100-m events, except men’s 100-m freestyle where the correlation of lap times was identical in the first and second lap for males
  • the winners of the men’s freestyle had a slower first lap than the second placed swimmers, but were differentiated by a smaller drop off (differential between first and second lap time) in the final lap. In contrast, women’s 100-m freestyle winners were faster in both laps.
  • In 200-m events, the strongest determinant of finish time was the middle two laps of backstroke and breaststroke, the third lap in freestyle, and the third and fourth laps in butterfly and individual medley.
There’s little from race results to contradict that even pacing is the most physiologically advantageous method.  Though some results do indicate that fast starts are a common strategy, most field studies do not account for increased velocity via the dive.  Further, it’s not surprising that a fast start is a common strategy in male IM’s with more than 60% of the race consisting of fly (the fastest stroke), underwater dolphin to start backstroke, and a dive start.  This finding may also reflect the reality that many of the recent era's top male IM swimmers have emerged from butterfly and backstroke backgrounds.    


  1. Thompson KG, MacLaren DP, Lees A, Atkinson G.  The effect of even, positive and negative pacing on metabolic, kinematic and temporal variables during breaststroke swimming breaststroke swimming.  Eur J Appl Physiol. 2003 Jan;88(4-5):438-43. Epub 2002 Nov 19. 
  2. Mauger AR, Neuloh J, Castle PC.  Analysis of pacing strategy selection in elite 400-m freestyle swimming. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2012 Nov;44(11):2205-12. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e3182604b84. 
  3. Saavedra JM, Escalante Y, Garcia-Hermoso A, Arellano R, Navarro F.  A 12-year analysis of pacing strategies in 200- and 400-m individual medley in international swimmingcompetitions.J Strength Cond Res. 2012 Dec;26(12):3289-96. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e318248aed5. 
  4. Robertson EPyne DHopkins WAnson J. Analysis of lap times in international swimming competitions. J Sports Sci. 2009 Feb 15;27(4):387-95. doi: 10.1080/02640410802641400.

By Allan Phillips. Allan and his wife Katherine are heavily involved in the strength and conditioning community, for more information refer to Pike Athletics.


Dr. John Mullen, DPT, CSCS world-renowned physical therapist and strength coach.
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