The 3 Most Popular Race Strategies in Swimming

Photo Courtesy: Grace Schwiederek

By Chris Balbo, Swimming World College Intern.

When it comes to race day, it is critical to have a plan or strategy for your races. It may seem like a simple element of a race to some, but to others executing the correct race strategy can be the difference between a personal best and the worst swim of your career. Of course, race strategy varies per swimmer and even per event. It makes sense. Would you swim a 50 the same way as the 1650? No!

As swimmers progress through the sport, the execution of a race becomes increasingly important. Swimmers and coaches must work together to craft a strategy suitable to the event and the swimmer’s own talents. For some, getting into a rhythm early in a race – taking it out fast – can help a swimmer in the back half. However, a distance swimmer may need to negative split their race to build into their stroke.

Here are a few common race strategies seen at every meet:

1. Fly and Die.


Photo Courtesy: Antone Balbo

The “fly and die” strategy is usually found in shorter events. It is the preferred strategy of sprint-oriented racers.  Sprinters tend to use this strategy for all events, regardless of the distance, to varying success. This strategy is not recommended for events over a 200 since it is difficult to maintain maximum speed for longer distances. Let’s be real, we have seen someone sprint the 200 butterfly and regret their decision in the last 50 yards.

2. Sally/Sammy Save-Up


Photo Courtesy: David Rieder

Every team has a swimmer that uses the Sally or Sammy save up strategy. Whether they negative split the 1000 freestyle or come home guns blazing in the last 50 of a 200, these swimmers have endurance for days. The save up strategy is useful for swimmers who can pace with ease, but may need a couple of laps to get into a rhythm. They don’t take a race out fast, but sure know how to race to the finish. This is not always the most efficient way to race, but it is necessary for a select few.

3. The Even Splitter


Photo Courtesy: Nicholas McMillan

If you’ve ever watched a distance event there is always one swimmer that will consistently hold the same pace per 50, evenly splitting every 50. There are also those swimmers that will exactly even split the 1000 freestyle, not missing a beat on any 100. These swimmers are hard to come by. You might be thinking, who does that? Why is that a good race strategy? Usually these tactics are unplanned. A swimmer who evenly splits an event may need some more warmup prior to racing or instead go out faster.

Picking the correct race strategy is not simple. Many nuances go into strategy: training, aerobic abilities, stroke, and speed. Race strategy can be as complex or as simple as needed. For some the simple “go out and swim fast!” might work, but for others, every detail must be accounted for. Finding the right race strategy for your race is something that should be talked about with your coach and not decided independently. Strategies are fluid and ever-changing– never set in stone. No matter what level swimmer, there will always be strategic tweaks and modifications which can lead to steady improvement.

All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff. 


  1. Will Manion

    I’m all about the 1st strategy Chris Balbo

    • Chris Balbo

      Unfortunately, I cannot say the same #DGroup4Life

  2. Tim Grubb

    What’s yours personal favorite Ty Grubb?

  3. avatar

    The second strategy unless it turns into three because you accidentally did one. The second strategy because sprinting towards the end allows you to die correctly and spectacularly, provided you time it just right.

  4. avatar
    Garry Kolafa

    Strategy 1 for all races 100m or less, Strategy 2 for 200m races and 400m/500yd races, a good example of this was when Ian Thorpe won against Michael Phelps in the 200m fly. Strategy 3, I believe, is a personal decision or approach.

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