Compared to shorter swimming events, distance swimming is a whole different animal. But we’re here to let you in on a little secret…if you pace yourself correctly, long swims can actually be pretty fun!

Swimming at the right pace ensures that you make it through your race (or just swim a longer workout) with enough energy to finish strong.

Check out our top 5 tips to help you stay on pace for long swimming races, plus 2 sample workouts to help you work on pacing. If you take our advice, you just might get faster, too!

What is Distance Swimming?

Numerous swimming events fall into the “distance” category:

Pool Events:

  • 400m/500y Freestyle
  • 800m/1,000y Freestyle
  • 1,500m/1,650y Freestyle

Open Water Events:

  • 1,500m
  • 5,000m
  • 10,000m+

Whichever event you choose, there’s one common thread that connects all of them: Pacing. Here’s how to find your pace for a distance swim! 

How to Find Your Goal Swimming Pace

After signing up for your event, think about the goal time you want to hit, and break it down. If you want to swim a 500 freestyle in 5 minutes, split that time into smaller chunks to use as a guide during your training. For example:

To achieve 5:00 in the 500 free, you need to go:

  • :30 per 50
  • 1:00 per 100
  • 2:00 per 200

Knowing these goal times will help you in training during the weeks or months leading up to your race. More on pace training later…

Pacing Tips

1. Build Endurance

If you want to hold your goal pace for the duration of your race and cross the finish line feeling strong, you need to have good endurance! 

When training for distance, it’s important to keep the following 3 factors in mind:

  • Training Volume: Total amount of swimming you’re doing each week (ex. 10,000 yards a week)
  • Training Frequency: How often are you swimming? (ex. 4 days a week)
  • Training Density: How far you swim in a specific period of time (ex. 4,000 yards in 1 hour = high density, 1,000 yards in 1 hour = low density)

As you build your endurance your volume, frequency and density will all increase. If you are increasing all of these at the same time, your pace will likely suffer.

To help combat reductions in speed, it’s important to build up your distance over time. A good rule of thumb is to only increase your distance by 10% each week to help your body to adapt gradually. If you swam 10,000 yards last week, you should only increase by 1,000 yards the following week.

The best way to ensure you are progressing safely is to follow a structured training plan! The MySwimPro app provides personalized Training Plans that align with your goals. Check out these Plans designed for distance swimming:

2. Find Your Breathing Pattern

Your breath plays a huge role in your performance over long distances. Your muscles need a steady supply of oxygen, and creating a rhythm with your breathing can help you stick to your goal pace!

Related: The 5 Worst Breathing Mistakes Swimmers Make

Most swimmers breathe every 2, 3, or 4 strokes. Find a pattern that feels most comfortable for you — we recommend trying to breathe every 2! 

It’s important to note that your breathing pattern for a long swim might be different than it is for a short swim. Many elite swimmers breathe only once or twice (or not at all!) during races like the 50 free. If you tried to do that during a 1-mile race, it would not be pretty!

3. De-Emphasize Your Kick

You may have noticed that many distance swimmers don’t kick nearly as much as sprinters. There’s a reason: in distance swimming, most of your power should come from your arms.

Related: Fix These Kicking Issues to Swim Faster!

Most sprinters have a 6-beat kick: they take 3 kicks for every arm stroke. In distance swimming, it’s more common to have a 2-beat kick: 1 kick of every arm stroke. A 2-beat kick helps keep your hips up and drives rotational momentum to set you up for a strong catch and pull, without using up too much energy. 

During long swims, focus on finding balance in the water and maintaining good rotation rather than kicking hard. You just might find that you’re able to swim further!

4. Do Pace Work in Training

Remember when we broke down our goal time? Use those smaller chunks to guide your pace work in training. 

Pace work doesn’t always mean you’re swimming at your goal race pace all the time. You might swim sets that push you to swim slightly faster than race pace for short durations, or slightly slower.

When working on race pace sets for a longer swim, remember that your goal 100 pace for the long swim will likely be slower than your pace for an all-out 100. And that’s ok! Not even elite swimmers can maintain their 50 or 100 free best time over the course of a mile or more.

The goal of pace training is to train your body to maintain proper technique and speed. If you’ve set your goal pace too fast and you have to sprint to make it, your technique will suffer and you will likely burn out in competition. That’s not what you want!

Set realistic goals, find a balance between speed and technique that you can maintain for the duration of your race, and you’re golden!

5. Create a Pace Plan…and Stick to It!

In preparation for your race, you likely have a plan in mind that will help you hit your goal time (example: I will hold 29 seconds per 50 to go 5:00 in the 500 free).

But when the buzzer goes off and you dive in, adrenaline often takes over and you might go out way too fast. This is a recipe for disaster: When you don’t stick to your plan, you’re more apt to fall apart later in the race because you used up all your energy too soon. 

Ideally, you should feel like you’re “building” the entire race so you have enough in the tank to push to the finish. Don’t worry about what anyone else is doing, and stick to your plan!

Try These Distance Swim Sets

Be sure to add your own warm up and cool down to make these sets a full workout!

Set 1: 400/500 Free

Pre Set: 

8 x 75 Pull (repeat the below 2x)

  • 2 @ 1:20
  • 2 @ 1:10

Main Set:

Part 1

  • 1 x 300 Free
  • 1 x 200 Free
  • 1 x 100 Free

Part 2 (2x)

  • 4 x 50 Free @ :50 Descend to 500 pace
  • 6 x 50 Free @ 1:00 Swim at 500 Pace
  • 100 Easy, Free/Back by 25

Set 2: 1,500/1,650 Free

Pre Set: 

8 x 75 Pull (repeat the below 2x)

  • 2 @ 1:20
  • 2 @ 1:10

Main Set:

Part 1

3 x 300 Free Build

Part 2 (2x)

  • 4 x 100 Free @ 1:40 Descend to 1,500 pace
  • 6 x 100 Free @ 1:30 Swim at 1,500 Pace
  • 100 Easy, Free/Back by 25

Share your favorite distance workouts or tips in the comments! Download the MySwimPro app for personalized Workouts, Training Plans and coaching. Try our ELITE subscription free for 30 days!