Negative Splits 'Splained
A “negative split” (sometimes abbreviated “N/S”) swim is one in which you control your speed in order to get faster throughout the swim. A standard negative split swim is one in which the last half is swum faster than the first half. For instance, a negative split 300 yard swim is one in which the last 150 yards is swum faster than the first 150 yards - say 2:05 for the first 150 and 2:01 for the last 150 (a 4 second negative split) for a total of 4:06 for the 300.
A more refined negative split might call for "300 N/S by 100s” which means that each 100 is faster than the previous one - say 1:25, 1:22, 1:19 - same 4:06, just swum a little differently.
Compare this to how Joe Average might split a 300. Joe goes out like gangbusters, turning the front 100 at 1:17, then, sagging a bit due to premature accumulation of lactate, he posts a 1:22 on the second 100 and, finally, someone dumps a piano on his back and he drags it to the final wall for a 1:27 on the back 100. It’s still a 4:06 but, though Joe may enjoy faster speed for the first 100, he soon experiences fatigue, pain and loss of speed control as each subsequent length gets slower and harder. He may even need help exiting the water. Coaches often call this “positive split” or “sucker split” swimming.
For any distance that takes longer than 60 seconds, slightly negative splits give the best tradeoff between speed and energy consumption - and the strategy should be in your playbook.
Until you have lots of experience with negative splitting, though, you cannot go by feel to judge pace - use the clock. Glance quickly to see your time at the halfway point of a swim, also note your time at the finish then do a bit of simple math. One very workable strategy is to look at your split at the halfway point and, during the next length, figure out where the second hand will be at the finish if you precisely even split the swim (swim the 2nd half at exactly the same speed as the 2st half). Then, at the end, you can see by the actual position of the second hand whether, and by how much, you negative split the swim.
If you do not know your splits on a given swim, assume it was not a negative split! (At the end of his swim Joe might say, “Gee coach, I sure felt like I swam the last half harder than the first half! Your stopwatch lies!” Coach responds, “You certainly did work a lot harder in the last half! There is, however, a distinction between swimming harder and swimming faster.”)
If you are new to N/S swimming, start by swimming the first half of a shorter distance (say, 100 yards) at a slow, easy pace, then speed up in the second half. Once the clock consistently confirms that you have the basic skills of the negative split, work on seeing how fast you can swim the first half and still bring the second half home a bit faster. As you gain more skill and confidence, apply the same paradigm to longer and longer distances. Once mastered, you will eventually begin to automatically negative split longer swims, finishing them faster, with more control and less fatigue!
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