Teaching Race Strategy in Training and Racing: The Power of Negative Split by Vic and Renee Riggs (2001)


Hello and welcome. Today we will be discussing how training with an emphasis on Negative Splitting applies to our race strategy – Why train this way? First, we believe that this is a great way to build a swimmers endurance and overall conditioning. Second, we train our swimmers to win the last 50 not the first. We feel this not only helps their race strategy but also creates motivation in their races. Third, the emphasis on N.S. helps with over distance training for specific events. Lastly, it teaches the swimmer how to control his speed, how much effort it takes to go a certain speed, and ultimately develops a pace clock in the swimmer’s head. Perhaps most importantly, any swimmer who puts in the effort can learn to negative split. With all of these factors we feel this is one of the best ways to prepare a swimmer for their events.


Let’s take a look at a typical season plan. We have 3 training phases. First is the fall running from September to November. We start with 6 weeks of drill instruction taking a stroke a week and finishing with 2 weeks of intense drill work so each swimmer knows what drills they need to do to improve his or her stroke weaknesses. During the first six weeks we gradually increase the volume of pulling from 1,000 to 3,000. All early season pull sets are aerobic and build. We frequently impose challenging breathing patterns that become less difficult as we expect the speed to increase (projection #1). As we approach our first competition in mid- October we begin to add longer and more intense main sets that also incorporate a negative split strategy. We are still focusing on aerobic development so that kids are seeing a lot of distance sets regardless of their particular race strength. We do a fair amount of distance stroke training in late October (projection #2).


The next training season runs from November through the end of January. Our main focus is conditioning–both strength and endurance. We introduce long main sets in November and build the distance through Christmas training. For distance swimmers in particular this is probably the most important part of the year. The conditioning they develop now is crucial for both the short and long course seasons. The pull sets are designed with each swimmer’s best distance event in mind. We focus on strong, negative splits with little rest.


For distance and middle distance swimmers, most pull sets will consist of 400’s and up with a goal of negative splitting by approximately one second per hundred. This means a 500 Free might be negative split by 5 seconds (projection #3). During this phase of the season we pull 30-40% of our yardage. We are looking for a long smooth stroke building tempo throughout the set. We continue with difficult breathing patterns and insist on swimmers taking two strokes in and two strokes out of each turn without a breath. This is nearly impossible for some swimmers to begin with but it worth the effort.


Distance main sets are designed to make the swimmer train at high intensity every day. We do not do “recovery” days on a regular basis.  If we see the group really breaking down (or an individual) we will adjust accordingly. However, we strongly believe in quality swimming everyday. All the sets incorporate negative splitting at some point. Many times the main sets are descending in speed. This helps the swimmer get into a groove and allows for adjustments to be made along the way. A well-designed set done right results in fast swimming that the swimmer will be able to associate with a particular race and strategy.


For sprinters and stroke swimmers the pull sets are usually 500s and under although we occasionally do a distance pull set for everyone. Backstrokers and breaststrokers pull a lot of stroke (50% of their pulling) with the breaststrokers sometimes usually fins (projection #4). Pull sets for these swimmers are over-distance training. Many of our swimmers will train over-distance for their events until January.


The main sets are designed for the1r specific races at this point with an emphasis on pace and goal times. Many of the sets will be a combination of 50’s or 100’s and long swims (projection #5). The longer swims are always negative split and the shorter swims are to be as close to even split as possible. We are continually reminding swimmers not to overwork the front end.


The third part of the season runs from February through the end of March and includes our short course championship meets. During this time our pull sets are still designed for the swimmer 10 negative split but they are shorter and frequently used as preparation sets for the main set. The main sets become the focus of the workout for all swimmers and are designed to build confidence in their races. We use longer intervals to facilitate faster times.


Now let’s talk about implementing this into a race strategy. Having trained to negative split allows the swimmer to feel comfortable in his ability to do this when racing. Swimmers must know their strengths and weaknesses since there are times when weaknesses in particular require some deviation from the standard negative split philosophy. For example, a true sprinter may have to take a race out as fast as possible and just try to hang on. Ultimately, swimmers must remember the game plan. Our swimmers are frequently last to the wall at the beginning of the race. They must be confident in their ability to come back on the field and not be drawn out by their opponents.


We do a huge amount of work with splits. Swimmers are expected to know both their own splits and the ideal splits for all of their events. During the early season we rarely discuss overall time preferring to focus on splits and technique. Each swimmer must learn what his pace speed feels like and how to make adjustments to finish the race strong. To encourage this sense of pace we ask swimmers to focus on stroke count on the first half of the race and build tempo on the back half. This allows many swimmers to relax mentally as well as physically. The swimmer needs to take early season split results and make training adjustments to their training where necessary. If a swimmer is consistently having trouble bringing a race home it frequently is because he is unable to negative split in practice.


During mid-season swimmers should already being even or negative splitting quite well. If a swimmer is having trouble with title 3rd or 4th 50 of a 200 or the 7th or 8th 100 of a 1000, those are the areas we need to work on in practice. For swimmers who are now splitting “perfectly” it is time to lower the goal pace in training and competition. It is never too late to work on negative splitting but the farther into the season you get the harder it is to get used to and the fewer results you will see in competition.


(Projection #6) Typical splits we like to see when our kids race:



Freestyle – 1 to 2 second negative split

Stroke – 2 to 4 seconds negative split

It is particularly difficult to keep splits tight for breaststroke


Even split race

2nd 100 slowest, but limit drop off as it sets the pace for the rest of the race

Last 100 close to 1st 100 split



Even or negative split race

Build by 200s

1st & last 100 same



Negative split race, descend by 500’s

For the 1650 the last 150 is a sprint


400 IM

Negative split 100’s

Butterfly will not be negative split but if the swimmer keeps negative splitting in mind the drop off should be lower

Race your strong strokes

Race your weak strokes

Sprint freestyle


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