Robert Finke and Katie Ledecky at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics (image source: Reuters)
Distance swimming presents different challenges compared to sprint swimming. In sprinting, explosive power and perfect execution right from the dive start to finish are critically needed. However, as the distance gets longer, speed becomes less critical and the spectrum moves towards ‘threshold speed’, which is the ability for the body to go at the fastest rate it can sustain. This requires a mixture of speed, endurance and excellent tactical strategies by the swimmers.
Watching the Men's and Women's 1500m Freestyle event at the recent Olympics and analysing their race data (attached) where even milliseconds matter, let's see what we can take away.
POSITIVE AND NEGATIVE SPLITS AS A TACTICAL STRATEGY
Some terminology before we continue, 'negative splits' means swimming faster in the current round than the previous round – you’re swimming faster as the distance progresses; whereas 'positive splits' means the current round is slower than the previous round – you’re swimming slower as the distance progresses. In distance swimming, achieving negative splits is a critical element for a strong swim, you want to start fast and finish fastest.
Negative splits matter. The men's and women's gold winners had a total of 8 rounds of negative splits/100m which is noticeably more than the slowest swimmers who performed with 5 and 6 rounds of negative splits. The Men's gold medallist, Robert Finke from the USA, was swimming at 4th place up until the 700m mark and swam in 7 negative splits throughout the last 800 metres of the swim to win the gold.
When to use positive and negative splits? The dive-in start gave a good push, giving around 2-3 seconds ahead of the swimmers' respective 100m time. It's common to see the 1st 100m as the fastest round because of the advantage of the dive-in and hence, almost all swimmers started with positive splits. Finke (Men's gold) and Ledecky (Women's gold) swam with positive splits up until the 400m mark. In distance swimming, swimmers usually start steady-fast and finish super-fast. In sprint swimming, going steady-fast is not in the vocabulary; there is only 'all-out'. Having said that, the athletes did not swim with negative splits all the way as positive splits act as a recovery between splits, and a slight positive split is the foundation for an explosive finish.
The FOMO trap. We can see swimmers who have lower ranks have fewer negative splits. For example, Auboeck ranked 7th (Men's) only had 3 negative splits from 15 rounds of 100m, and Quadarella ranked 5th (Women's) had only 2 negative splits throughout the race. From a psychological perspective, slower swimmers try to keep up with the faster swimmers at the beginning of the race. As they are probably not swimming at their own pace, fatigue hits the system; consequently, each lap becomes slower. Often, swimmers with higher threshold speed dictate the race by going a little faster at the start to invite the rest to push too early and lead them to fatigue in the following rounds. This is a common tactic and a well-known trap, yet many fall into FOMO (fear of missing the front pack).
Explosive power for the finish. Out of all men's and women's swimmers, only the top 3 swimmers from the men’s race (Finke, Romanchuk and Wellbrock) managed to beat their 1st 100m split time, which was during the explosive sprint to the finishing line. Men’s swimmers rank no. 4 to 8 and all swimmers in the women's race were not able to go faster than their 1st 100m. This shows that the top 3 male swimmers have the most explosive power.
STRATEGIES OF THE GOLD MEDALLISTS
Start fast, finish faster. In the men's event, Robert Finke (USA) began moderately in the first 200m, and put in steady effort between 200m to 700m. From then onwards, he slowly built up speed in negative splits and reached an explosive pace in the last 100m. This confirms the hypothesis of negative splits: he started fast and finished even faster.
Changing gears for a powerful finish. In the women's event, Katie Ledecky (USA) is undeniably strong and in a class of her own as she dominated the race in first place from the start till the end. Ledecky changed gears many times: from a sharp pullback at 1000m, ramped up some speed to 1100m, pulled back to her slowest pace at 1200m, right before building up her acceleration at 1300m & 1400m and finally for the explosive swim to the finish line.
A tactical pattern in the winners? There is an interesting pattern that we found from the 2 gold medal winners, Finke and Ledecky, both from the USA team. From the charts, you will see they both had identical velocity patterns. First, they slowed down from 200m to 400m, then swam steadily between 400m to 1000m. From 1000m, they start building up the momentum to finish in 1st place. Could this point to a planned strategy by the USA team? I'm not sure, as both swimmers have a different coach but the similarity in the pattern is so uncanny, we cannot rule out the importance of tactical strategies in winning gold.
WHAT DOES ALL THIS MEAN FOR AGE-GROUP TRIATHLETES?
The ability to pace is critical for mid to long-distance swims. Many triathletes go too fast at the start, thinking to keep up with the others so that they do not miss out on cycling with the front pack. This tactic is debatable as cycling with the pack will indeed give you a drafting advantage. However, understanding your ability is more important. You should not chase athletes whose performance is beyond yours as it will push your fatigue level high at the start. If you already swam beyond your threshold limit, your body gets fatigued and it will need to slow down to recover hence you won’t be performing at your best in cycling and running later. This will ruin your overall race performance.
What’s most important is to race as you planned. If you ask world class swimmers, they will tell you, “I am racing nobody but my own time”. You will see them wearing big noise-cancelling headphones as they enter the race venue. This is to avoid distraction from the competition and the cheering crowds. At the end of the race, they will be happy if they smashed their Personal Best time.
Remember, race fast and finish faster!