Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Build and Descend with Purpose

by Jeff Fejfar

I have been very fortunate over the years to share the lane (or at least share the pool) with some incredibly strong swimmers and triathletes. One thing I found very interesting when I first started swimming alongside these athletes was the huge range they had in their swim pacing.

During a warmup set, I would be swimming something like 1:25/100yd pace very relaxed and easy, and would be running up on them if we were in the same lane. Yet when we got into quicker paced sets, their pace would drop down to 1:10, 1:05, 1:00… or even sub-1:00 pace/100 while I was struggling to hold 1:15s going almost all-out. It was interesting to see the huge variance these strong swimmers had, and more importantly how little I possessed.

A great way to work on developing your range is to incorporate "build" and "descend" sets into your training. Both build and descend sets are similar in that they involve pace changes, but are completely different in their formats. Many will have heard of these terms, but some don't truly understand them, so here is a quick primer:

  • Build set - A build set may be a variety of distances and repetitions, but the premiss is that you constantly accelerate your pace and effort within each interval. The set could be built around a recovery time or a send-off. An example would be something like 4x100yds build, on 1:45. For this "build," the athlete would increase pacing within each 100 interval and would touch the wall on approximately the same time for each. Even though the pacing within the interval for this athlete may have gone from 1:38/100 to start, down to 1:22/100 by the end, he may touch at 1:30 on all four, giving 15 seconds rest on each.

  • Descend set - A descend set can again be a variety of distance or repetitions, but the focus is that you swim each interval at an even pace, but each subsequent interval is faster than the previous. They are typically written on a given send-off and as each arrival time decreases, the recovery time increases as pacing increases. Using the same example as above (4x100yds descend 1-4, on 1:45), for this "descend", the athlete would increase pace for each 100 interval, but hold pacing even within each. For the same above athlete, touch times may look like 1:35, 1:31, 1:26, 1:22, and thus leaving on 1:45, his recovery would be 10, 14, 19 and 23 seconds respectively.

Hopefully if you didn't understand how to do the sets, you do now. However, understanding the way the formatting works doesn't necessarily mean a swimmer can execute it as stated. For many triathletes I have worked with, they just don't know how to swim faster, they only know how to swim harder. I may give them a 4x100 descend set and we might be lucky to see a one to two second change between the slowest and fastest interval, but their effort went up dramatically for little return on output.

In swimming, you can go faster by either increasing your stroke rate, stroke distance, or a combination of both. Stroke rate is increased by picking up your cadence and stroke distance is increased by increasing the propulsive force with each pull and/or kick. So when trying to vary your pace, think of changing one of these items versus simply just “going harder.”

For myself, I have found about six distinct speed ranges, and as each increases, I add a focal point from above. Below are my approximate ranges and what I think about during each. For reference, in parenthesis are my approximate pacing at each:

  • Very easy (1:20-1:25/100) - Just going through the motions. No significant force against the water and stroke rate is very relaxed.
  • Steady (1:15-1:20/100) - Here I just focus on perfect form, even rhythm and always keeping contact with the water during the pull. I can bilaterally breath easily throughout. This is my ironman distance effort.
  • Moderate (1:10-1:15/100) - All I think about is slightly picking up my stroke-rate, and I focus on making the recovery quicker. If I stay balanced, this will also increase the pull slightly, however mentally it is easier to focus on the recovery. This is about my half-ironman to Olympic distance effort.
  • Moderately-Hard (1:07-1:12/100) - I begin to focus on a stronger pull phase by driving my hip rotation more intently. This is around standard sprint distance effort.
  • Hard (1:02-1:05/100) - I focus on applying as much force through the entire stroke cycle as possible and leveraging a powerful hip rotation. This is above my standard sprint distance effort.
  • All-out (sub-1:02/100) - This is when I add in a full six-beat kick and just go all out. This is not sustainable for me for more than about 100 yards max.

As time progresses and you spend more time focusing on the cues and emphasis in different parts of the stroke that give you a different speed, it will give you a better reference for locking into these efforts and paces come race day. In general, swim pacing during a race can be one of the hardest things for a triathlete. You spend almost every single training session with perfect feedback of clear water, black lines and pace clocks giving you feedback as often as every 25 yards. However on race day, almost every distance, timing and visual cue you have for pacing is taken away in the open water.

Start with shorter intervals and incorporate plenty of rest, then progress where you can do longer intervals maintaining the same paces. Your paces may be faster or slower and you may even have different cues for you efforts. However, focus on how to swim faster, not just harder when changing efforts. Use the above advice and really learn how to embrace changing your speed and build and descend with purpose.


Jeff has been a multisport athlete since the mid-2000s, having entered the sport as many do as an adult. Over his competitive triathlon career, he has been a multiple-time 70.3, Kona and Team USA qualifier. As a coach, his vision is to help athletes increase their skills, fitness and overall race performance to move them forward to reach their goals.
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