Metrics 103: Pacing Failure And Success

1405 Metrics 103 Pace Failure and Success

Here is an excerpt from the Pace Improvement Course I am offering through both the TI Academy and to swimmers I am coaching on my private Smooth Strokes Forum.  This came up at the point we are taking a chosen SPL x Tempo (= Pace) combination and building up distance with intervals.


By gradually increasing distance you will challenge your abilities to hold your chosen SPL x Tempo combination. It will get difficult and you will reach what feel like limits to your ability for that day. Yet ‘failure’ of this type is an important part of your success.

Failure may come in one, or a mix of these objective forms:

  1. SPL will start to rise and you can’t bring it back down and keep Tempo.
  2. Tempo will feel too rushed, and you can’t maintain the timing any more while preserving SPL.
  3. Effort (your heart rate) will climb and rest intervals won’t be enough to refresh your muscles and mind for the next repeat.

And why might this failure happen?

#1 – You have reached your muscular/metabolic limits and it is physically impossible to apply enough power.

#2 – You have reached neurological limit, attention grew weak or distracted – or in other words, you lost concentration and conscious control over what was making your stroke work.

#1 is what most people assume has happened. But really, the cause may likely be #2 more often than #1. Don’t underestimate the power of concentration. You do have a limited supply of energy, but the fundamental swimming problem for humans is not insufficient amount of power, but an extraordinary amount of wasted power. It is an interesting phenomenon in many intense sports and activities that we actually ‘give up’ control from mental weakness before we actually lose it by physical exhaustion (I have prime examples in my rock climbing experience).

One of the intentions of this course is to show you that you indeed have enough power already on hand from which you can extract a lot more distance and speed, if only you learn to use it better. Steady concentration on the specific features of your stroke that reduce drag and conserve energy is what will set you up for success on this path of improvement.

At this step of the process your body is going to get that workout you have been expecting. Your fitness will be required to increase in proportion to your technical skill because you are setting an exacting neuro-muscular task for yourself. This is how fitness happens while focusing on technique. Your ability to generate power will be directly linked and subservient to your ability to use that power well. Your body will learn to supply just enough power, precisely where it is needed, precisely when it is needed because you are foremost focused on executing a specific stroke pattern to achieve specific results in timing and distance, not merely churning your arms and burning calories.

Truly efficient speed will be the result of this step in the training process when you discipline yourself to be loyal to your chosen SPL x Tempo combination, and use your assessment of ‘failure’ to find the technical weaknesses in your stroke. Don’t put in the distance, put in the quality.

When you reach some form of failure (noted above) you need to assess what is the root cause of that failure – you may ask yourself:

  • Did I feel a loss of control over SPL first, or over Tempo first? Why?
  • What feature of my stroke started to fail that made me feel struggle?
  • When did I lose concentration? What key features of my stroke did I lose concentration on?
  • At what point in a single distance interval do I start to struggle? 100 meters, 200 meters, 300 meters, etc.
  • At what point in the total distance do I start to struggle or feel exhausted? 500 meters, 750 meters, 900 meters, etc?

Then you can decide if you can do something to recharge your strength of concentration and resume the practice set, or you are done for the day in order to give the brain and body time to adapt during your rest until the next practice.


3 responses to “Metrics 103: Pacing Failure And Success

  1. Hello Coach Mat,
    Thanks for your always very informative posts. I have learned a great deal from you. Your post above makes me wonder if my problem is #1 or #2. I think it’s both. In #1, my muscles do not get tired (I am fairly fit) but I “run out of air”, then problem #2 starts! I have been practicing really slow strokes for months, can do 16-17 spl’s (in 25 yd pool) with TT 1.3 but cannot sustain it. I get exhausted after about 100 yds. I wonder if it’s mental where I convince myself that I’ll run out air and …. sure enough, I do. Very frustrating. Any insights would be greatly appreciated. Thanks.

    • Do you feel your SPL of 16-17 is appropriate for your height/wingspan? You would want to check that to make sure you are not trying to create a strong length beyond what is ideal for your mechanical leverage.

      And, another thing to check is your breathing skill – in terms of head position, timing and air management. I’ve had quite a few students who have come to me complaining of not feeling that they can get enough air, or getting tired quickly, and when we tune up the breathing skill, everything seems to much easier from just that adjustment alone. A struggle to get to air easily also taxes the brain, and increases oxygen demand, though the stroke itself (sans breathing) and tempo should not require that much air exchange.

      The drive for air is probably far more subconscious (lymbic system) than conscious, so not so much ‘mental’ and purely neurological. What you are conscious of is just the tip of the iceberg. The land mammal brain knows you need air, and if there is any lack of confidence that you can get to it easily and get enough, that brain, without you realizing it, will force you to do something about it. It will pull resources from other parts of the body and prioritize movement that seem to help get to air over movements that move you forward.

      And, you can set you total distance for the set (like 800, 1000, 1200 yards total), then break it into smaller pieces where you don’t keep running into what feels like a cardiovascular limit on every repeat. You can do cycles of 25, 50, 75, and 100 and alternate SPL x Tempo combinations.

      One way is to hold SPL at 17
      Round 1 use 1.34 tempo
      Round 2 use 1.32 tempo
      Round 3 use 1.30 tempo
      Round 4 use 1.28 tempo
      Round 5 use 1.30 tempo
      Round 6 use 1.32 tempo

      See if you can lower SPL N-1 by the last Round.

      I am going to guess here (bc I lack some data on you) on the equivalent combinations but you might tries these, which equate to the same Pace (= SPL x Tempo) yet allow you to test how difference combos feel

      All of these may produce about the same 25 second per 25 yard pace for you:
      SPL x Tempo
      18 x 1.22
      17 x 1.30
      16 x 1.37
      15 x 1.42

      Try each of these on a Round. Compare how they feel, and ask yourself why you prefer one over the others, and where it makes a difference in the stroke.

      • Wow, thank you so much for your quick and detailed answer! I think you are correct in diagnosing a problem with my breathing technique. I am working on trying to relax my neck and shoulders with Superman Glide. That tenseness is probably robbing me of energy.

        I am a little over 5’8″ (or a little over 170 cm) and according to your chart of height vs SPL, I am in the ball park. I can swim a mile, but …. with rest in between sets. I don’t even feel tired after that, but I feel like I am going to drown if I don’t take a brief break after 100 yd or so.

        I am going to try your suggestions today at the pool.
        Thank you again.

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