When It All Falls Apart: An Ode to the Piano


When It All Falls Apart: An Ode to the Falling Piano

The swim community has lots of colorful terms to describe our sport. One of my favorites is “a piano fell on their back.” If you have been around pool decks long enough, you will have heard this descriptor for races. The piano describes the dreaded burnout during the second part of the race. Even Olympians have had this happen to them within Olympic races. 

What the Piano Feels Like

I think the description of the piano crushing your body is close enough. It is extremely painful, every muscle screaming and aching at once. Sometimes, I have heard people describe feeling like they were going backward. There is also a significant increase in time with the piano dropping. Particularly, the first half of the race has a significantly faster pace than the failing pace of the second half. It’s the point where your muscles physically can’t work any harder. 


The piano is caused by various factors. Sometimes, the piano comes in races at the beginning of the season, where your body hasn’t endured enough training yet. The piano can come after illnesses, with your body still recovering and readjusting to training. The piano also appears at the end of a long day of racing, after not having warmed down or eaten enough. 

However, it also drops during tapered races. This often means that the pace of the first half of a race was too hard to maintain based on your training. Sometimes, we get too excited before the start of the race, and all of our adrenaline makes us not feel how hard we are going. That is partially why pace work is so important for finding the feel of a pace that will be challenging, but also realistic to maintain for the race duration. 

Lessons from the Piano

If you have the piano fall on your back, that’s no problem! There are always things to learn from the experience. One important thing that the piano can teach you is to take your time. Racing is exciting and fun, but it still takes patience. Take the time to work on pacing during warmup. Races are not won within the first half of the race. If you take a look at Bobby Finke’s distance races in the past couple of years, they have been won in the second half. 

Sometimes, our training isn’t where it should be to support our efforts. Taking a look at your effort in training and what your practices are like can help inform any training adjustments. Evaluating and discussing your race approaches with coaches can help you find problem areas that cause late-race trouble. Sometimes, our race strategies don’t work. Making adjustments can help solve the problem for future and more important races. 

An Ode… 

Ultimately, the piano falling isn’t the worst thing in the world. It can be a point of connection with teammates. There is much that piano falling can teach us about ourselves, as it inspires us to change in the future. Still, we wish it was a less painful lesson!

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