Swimming Strategies?

So, I caught some of the Olympic swimming races and the commentators keep discussing the strategy involved. Now, color me ignorant, but I believed that in a race of such short duration, all one can really do is go fast and not wear onesself out before the end. Is there anything more to strategy for something like this?

In sprints, like the 50 and 100 meter races there is little strategy, just go like heck.

In longer races, such as the 200 and 400 meter events there is a lot more strategy, it’s not just an all out sprint. There are more turns, places to conserve energy by riding the bow wave of another swimmer, and saving yourself for the sprint. Lane assignments also affect things as it is difficult to see a long way across the pool for pacing.

Huh, that makes sense. So, even in those races (which, IIRC are still less than say, 5 minutes), ideally, you’ll want to be right in with pack and spring forward at the last minute? So it really just turns into a sprint at the end of the race?

I don’t think you could say there would be a ‘pack’ in any sense. The most common arrangement of swimmers looks something like an arrow, or an inverted “V”. The best swimmers are in the middle, since those who qualify the fastest are given the middle lanes.

It often happens that one swimmer is half a bodylength or so ahead of those in the lanes on either side of him / her, and they’re keeping up with him / her while reaping the minor benefit of his ‘bow wave’. However, this effect isn’t strong enough to cause the ‘go slow until someone breaks’ effect you often see in cycling. The swimmers are still going at a high proportion of their top speed.

You’ll rarely see swimmers swimming right beside each other for an extended period - this occurs when they’re both sprinting for the end, as Keller and Thorpe were in the 4 x 200m men’s freestyle only 12 hours ago.

As Atticus Finch said, there isn’t much of a benefit to a pack like there is in running or biking. Only people on either side of you can really benefit from the bow wave, and that can be dimished if the lead swimmer chooses to swim on the other side of the lane.

Some swimmers are better finishers, able to sprint well after a long grueling race. And if you think that swimming at that pace for 2 minutes isn’t grueling, you should really try it some time. Others can keep a fast pacce for a long time but can’t increase their speed at the end. Setting the pace to be faster or slower may be beneficial for different swimmers. It’s hard to hold back when the gal next to you is pulling away early in the race, even if you think they are going to fade.