How Negative Split Swimming Works

By: Jane McGrath
Should you hold back that big burst of energy until later in the race?
Should you hold back that big burst of energy until later in the race?

Everyone inevitably slows down. Whatever the goal, we never seem to have as much energy as we had when we first start something. In fact, oftentimes, the faster we start something, the faster we slow down. That's why competitors like marathon runners and triathletes train to build endurance.

Part of learning endurance is learning to pace yourself. In other words, you learn not to start on all cylinders. Even if you start off fastest, if you waste all your fuel in the first part of a race, you'll slow down quickly, allowing someone else to easily overtake you. The proverb "slow and steady wins the race" is true in many circumstances. However, in triathlons, fast and steady is certainly preferable.


Perhaps the best mentality is trust in delayed gratification. Although everyone is different, many athletes perform best when they hold back a burst of energy until the end of a competition during the homestretch.

Competitive swimmers call this negative split swimming. This simply refers to when a swimmer finishes the second half of a race faster than the first half. But it's not as easy as some of the Olympic gold medalists make it look. It takes restraint to hold back upon your first dive in. That's understandable, because many swimmers like to take advantage of the initial dive to help propel them as much as possible and start off strong.

However, for many, the hardest part of negative splitting is getting faster on the second half of the race. It may feel as if you're putting in more effort than the first half, but your stroke tempo may not have changed at all.

These are reasons why negative split training is so grueling. However, many coaches believe the payoff is enormous. Even if you don't end up using this technique in competition, the training can help swimmers with their overall endurance. We'll discuss why this is, as well as the physical and psychological advantages of negative splitting.


Purpose of Negative Split Swimming

Negative split swimming strikes some as counterintuitive. It doesn't feel right to hold back effort at any point in a competition, least of all at the outset. Indeed, negative split swimming won't lead to faster times until after significant training. However, many coaches maintain that once a swimmer finally does master negative splitting, it'll result in greater control throughout.

First, it's important to understand why swimmers can't keep up their full force throughout an entire race. Your best speeds recruit anaerobic metabolism efforts, which use carbohydrates and not oxygen, causing your body to produce excessive amounts of lactic acid. Coach Gale Bernhardt explains that this lactic acid builds up in tissues and soon prevents enzymes from doing their job of breaking down carbohydrates effectively. Other problems include the damage to cell membranes and a buildup of electrolytes inside cells, which leads to cell swelling [source: Bernhardt].


In addition to these and other physiological factors that can drastically inhibit performance after a burst of full-force swimming, you simply waste energy inefficiently this way.

All this is to say what all athletes know intuitively -- that you can't keep up high intensity for long. Pacing, therefore, is the best way to go for longer races. Ideally, you can learn to recruit that burst of energy for the final stretch of a competition while still taking as much advantage of that burst as possible.

Esteemed coach Mark Schubert swears by negative splitting, claiming that even though the technique isn't for everyone in competition, the skill is invaluable to learn. To avoid the disappointment of being taken from behind, a swimmer who trains in negative splitting will be able to maintain a strong end to a race. But even those who do excel at negative splitting shouldn't always use it, argues Schubert. Instead, it's best to vary your technique and stay unpredictable for your competitors [source: Schubert].

But negative splitting is as much mental as it is physical. Those swimmers who start off too strong can get easily frustrated when losing energy and being overtaken on the second half. They experience slower speeds with what seems like greater efforts. In this sense, negative splitting teaches patience, confidence and control.


Negative Split Swim Training

Even though it might feel like you're going faster while you're negative splitting, you might not be going any faster.
Even though it might feel like you're going faster while you're negative splitting, you might be going the same speed.
Ryan McVay/Photodisc/Thinkstock

Because it's so counterintuitive, negative splitting is a difficult technique to master.

The first thing is to keep a close watch on a clock during training. Coach Emmett Hines emphasizes that until you're trained thoroughly in negative splitting, you can't trust your internal sense of time. Although it might seem inconvenient to consistently check a pace clock, Hines suggests several options. If swimming near a clock isn't possible, you should use a watch. Or, if you can't see the clock from where you are, you should get prescription goggles [source: Hines].


As you've probably guessed, for negative splitting, you should check the clock at the halfway point. Coach Hines tells his swimmers who typically use flip turns to do an open turn at the halfway point if they have to in order to glance at a clock [source: Hines].

After checking the time at the halfway point, you'll have to remember it during the way back, and, if possible, do some quick math in your head to calculate double that time. As soon as you finish the second half, check the clock again. If you end on more than double, it was a positive split, and you took longer on the second half. Obviously, the goal for negative splitting is to finish under double.

But don't be discouraged if it takes time to beat your first-half time. Though you may put in more effort on the second half, swimming harder doesn't necessarily mean swimming faster. Many swimmers have a difficult time with negative splitting because they start too fast or don't actually increase their stroke tempo on the second half [source: Hines].

Once you have greater control of negative split training, you'll gain a better internal sense of your time and pacing. Ultimately, mastering pacing is the holy grail of this training.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Bernhardt, Gale. "Negative-split Strategies." (Sept. 10, 2010)
  • Hines, Emmett. "Fitness Swimming." Human Kinetics, 2008. (Sept. 10, 2010)
  • Hines, Emmett. "What's All This About Negative Splits?" Swimming World Magazine.
  • Patrick, Dan. "DeMont Redeemed After 29 Years." ESPN. December 1, 2009. (Sept. 10, 2010).
  • Whitten, Phillip. "Distance Racing Strategies." Swimming World Magazine. April 2005. (Sept. 10, 2010)