Joining a team is a big step for most swimmers, and the experience can be a bit daunting, especially if you’re used to swimming laps at your own pace, in your own lane. One of the biggest challenges is figuring out how to read the pace clock. Here’s how to tell time at the pool.
Pace Clock 101
Most pools have two pace clocks… one at each end of the pool… and they should be synchronized so that you can get your time at each end of the pool. The pace clock is like a big stopwatch, except that it runs continuously. It’s used to time our swims, to time your rest intervals, and to keep you separated from the other swimmers in your lane.
Pace clocks can be digital or analog, in which case they look like a clocks. An analog pace clock has two hands: a black hand that sweeps the dial every hour; and a red hand that sweeps the dial every 60 seconds. The face of the clock is divided into 60 seconds, marked as 5, 10, 15, and so on.
Your coach might give you a set to do, and say, "We’ll go on the top" or "We’ll go on the 60." This means that the first person in the lane will push off and start the set when the red hand is on the 60 (or when the digital clocks is on :00). If coach says, "We’ll go on the bottom," the first person will push off on the 30. Unless coach says otherwise, the next person in the lane should push off 5 seconds after the first swimmer, and so on, until everyone in the lane has pushed off 5 seconds apart. Sometimes coach will say, "We’ll go 10 seconds apart," which means everyone is separated by 10 seconds. In the article on etiquette, we explain what happens if you catch up with the person in front of you… or if you get caught.
If you are the first swimmer in your lane, it’s easy to get your time when you finish a swim, especially if you pushed off on the 60 (or the :00), on the top. Let’s say you swam a 50 free, you left on the top, and you swam it in 45 seconds. The red hand (or the digital "seconds") will be on the 45 when you finish your swim. If you are not the first person in the lane, you have to do some arithmetic to get your time. Let’s say you swam a 50 free, you left on the 5 (because you’re the second swimmer in the lane), and you swam just as fast as the first person in the lane. The red hand will be on the 50 when you finish your siwm. To get your time, you must subtract 5 seconds from the finish time on the clock. If you were the third swimmer in the lane, you would have to subtract 10 seconds from the finish time on the clock to get your TRUE time. Your math skills will definitely improve as a swimmer!
When you swim 25s and 50s, it’s relatively easy to get your time. When you swim 100s, 200s, and more, it becomes a bit more complicated to get your time, because you may not be sure how many times that red hand has swept the dial before you finish, and it’s sometimes hard to read the black hand — the minute hand. If your pool has a digital pace clock, it’s easier to get your time, but you need to remember the "minute" that you pushed off, in addition to the "second." In time, you’ll just KNOW that you swim your 100s in about X number of minutes and X seconds. You’ll just KNOW that you swim your 200s in XX minutes and X seconds. Start with the assumption that your time for a 100 will be about twice your time for a 50, and so on.
You should try to get your time at the end of each swim. This will help you know whether you’re swimming at a consistent pace. If your times are getting slower, you may need to take more rest between swims, or you may need to focus more on your technique. If your times are getting faster, that’s good!
Sets and Sendoffs
If your coach gives you something to do, such as ten 50s freestyle, this is called a "set," and each of the 50s is called a "repeat." Coach might say something like, "ten 50s freestyle on a 1-minute sendoff or interval." On the chalkboard, the set would look like this:
10 X 50 free on 1:00
This means that every minute, you will push off and swim 50 yards or meters of freestyle. If you finish the 50 in 45 seconds, you’ll get 15 seconds rest. If you finish in 55 seconds, you will get 5 seconds rest. If you finish in 65 seconds, you will have "missed the sendoff" and you’re probably in a lane of swimmers that are a lot faster than you. In this case, you can tough it out, and swim the ten 50s as a continuous swim with no rest (not really advisable), or you can ask Coach to move you to a slower lane where the sendoff might be 1:15 or even 1:30. Another solution would be to skip a 50 whenever you miss your sendoff. Just rest until the next 50 begins. If you fall behind your lanemates, sitting out a 50 is actually the acceptable thing to do, because it keeps the lane running more smoothly.
If you’re on a large team, with swimmers of varing ability and speed, your coach will have divided you into lanes acording to your speed (usually for freestyle). On a large team, Coach might assign the above set by saying, "10 X 50 free on 1:00 for lane 1 (the fastest lane), 1:15 for lane 2, 1:30 for lane 3, and 2:00 for lane 4" If you are in lane 2 and know that your usual time for a 50 free is 1:15, you will have trouble making the set. It will be a continuos swim for you. If this is the case, you should ask Coach if you can switch to a lane with a slower sendoff, one that will give you adequate rest between 50s. "Adequate" is relative. Speedy swimmers often feel that 5 seconds is adequate rest between repeats. Less speedy swimmers will feel that 5 seconds if far from adquate. Typically, slower swimmers will need 10 to 20, or even 30, seconds rest between repeats. Get the rest that you need to accomplish the set your coach has assigned.
Another way that coach might assign the above set is to write
10 X 50 free on :15 RI
Here, RI stands for Rest Interval. Coach is saying that, no matter how fast or slow you swim each 50, you should take 15 seconds rest between each 50. To do this, you need to glance at the clock when you finish each 50, calculate your time, and push off 15 seconds later. Coach might also tell you to take 5 deep breaths or "bobs" between each 50 as your rest interval.
Sometimes a set will be composed of "rounds." Here’s an example of a set that Coach might write on the board:
5 Rounds of:
1 X 100
2 X 75
3 X 50
4 X 25
Round #1: freestyle
Round #2: backstroke
Round #3: breaststroke
Rounds 4 & 5: freestyle
This means you will swim one 100, two 75s, three 50s, and four 25s freestyle. That’s Round #1. Round #2 is all backstroke, and so on. OK, Coach, but what are the sendofs? "Everything is on a 30-second base per 25," Coach might say. Or, Coach might say, "Everything is on a 40-second base per 25." If it’s a 30-second base per 25, this means that the 100 is on a 2-minute sendoff (30 seconds X four 25s), the 75s are on a 1:30 sendoff, the 50s are on a 1-minute sendoff, and the 25s are on a 30-second sendoff. If you are in a slower lane and Coach says to go on a 40-second base per 25, your 100 will be on a 3:40 sendoff, etc. It can all be a little confusing at first, and simple addition seems like calculus when your heart is pumping overtime, but you’ll get the hang of it. The real fun begins when Coach asks you to count your strokes per length on top of all this!
Coach might also ask you to do a "descend set." On the chalkboard, you might see
6 X 50 freestyle on 1:00, descend 1 to 3 and 4 to 6
This means that you should swim at an easy pace on the first 50, then swim faster on the second 50, and swim faster still on the third 50. Go back to an easy pace on the fourth 50, get faster on the fifth, and faster still on the sixth.
Coach might also ask you to do a "build set." On the chalkboard, it would be
6 X 50 freestyle on 1:00, build
This means that you start each 50 at an easy pace, and then build speed until you are going FAST near the end of each 50.
There’s more swimming lingo to learn, and different coaches and teams have slightly different ways of saying the same thing, but this should give you the basics.