Open Water Pace

Developing the right pace for the open water is one of the most important lessons a novice triathlete must learn - and misjudging pace is one of the most common mistakes in the sport. When you're running you can use a heart-rate monitor and mile markers to judge your pace, but swim pacing is a tricky business. Incorporate these stroke-count and pacing sessions from Dan Bullock, coach and trainer at, into your training and learn how to master your pacing in the open water.

Stroke-count sessions

Basic: "To start, you should be attempting to break the barrier of one metre per stroke in your pool; for instance, 25 strokes for every 25-metre length," says Bullock. "Aiming to make your body travel one metre with each stroke in the early stages of your development would be a good start." Once you have the hang of that it's time for the next step.

Intermediate: Swim 400m in a 25m pool, paying particular attention to each fourth length. Does the stroke count on the fourth length stay constant for lengths eight, 12 and 16? "If the figure remains constant that's a good indicator that the mechanics of the stroke are not tiring you out and the stroke is becoming more sustainable," says Bullock. It may take a lot of practice but once you've mastered a sustainable stroke you can move on.

Advanced: If you have built up to 1500m a useful way to check your pacing and how to train is to measure your stroke count against time. Are you sustaining the one metre per second rule with each stroke? 

"If you add up these figures this equates to a very respectable time of 25min for 1500m," says Bullock. If you're not quite there, split the session into smaller, more manageable chunks, with frequent rest periods of about 30 seconds after each 100m. 

"Anyone can push off, glide and swim a length with an excessive kick between each arm stroke to get stroke count down to a minimum. What you should work towards is an optimum stroke count, a sensible compromise between speed and an efficient stroke," says Bullock. 

Pacing: the timed swim session

Rather than swimming to a distance you can alter your training by using time to check on your progress. "This session, in which you swim as far as you can in a set time, is worth repeating once every few weeks to get a better idea of your pacing," says Bullock. The aim is to swim a little further with each attempt. 

Warm up with 400m freestyle, your own choice of drills, strokes, kicks and pulls, and an optional 200m alternating between lengths of back and breast stroke.

Swim as far as you can in 20 minutes (an average sprint-distance time) or 30 minutes (an average Olympic-distance time). Don't start out too hard. Even pacing will help you avoid becoming too tired too soon. You can achieve this by counting your strokes regularly - try every four lengths - and aim to keep to the same number each time, as you did with the intermediate stroke-count session.

"You may have to try this a few times to get the hang of not starting out too fast. If you notice your stroke count going up drastically towards the end of the swim you probably started too fast," says Bullock.

Novice swimmers should try two sets of 10-minute sessions, with a one-minute rest in between. Count the number of lengths in 10 minutes and then try to add a length on the second set. This will encourage you to start out conservatively and learn how to master your pace.