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Understanding the Pace Clock in Swimming

You’ve probably heard conversations about pace clocks and intervals around the swimming pool. You might have even felt a little dumbfounded when swimmers have talked about them. You should learn to read a pace clock if you’re getting more serious about lap swimming, thinking about joining a team, or already on a team. Although figuring out the pace clock may seem tricky at first, it will be as easy as reading a regular clock once you get the hang of it.

Why Use a Pace Clock

When you’re swimming sets, one easy way to keep track of your progress is to pay attention to the pace clock. Watch the clock when you leave the wall, then glance back up at the clock when you come back to the wall. This allows you to figure out what your time was by doing some simple subtraction. If you do that for every repeat, you can see if you’re speeding up or slowing down.

A pace clock is not only good for monitoring your swimming progress. It also helps keep your mind fresh and alert. Understanding a pace clock is beneficial for you in so many ways!

If you’re on a swim team, either your coach or your lane-mates will decide on an interval that’ll be used for a set. After the interval is decided, you’ll need to pay attention to the pace clock to stay on the interval, not confuse your lane-mates, and not interfere with others’ workouts.

How to Read a Pace Clock

Traditional Clocks

A traditional pace clock looks like a large analogue clock with a few small tweaks: There’s no hour hand, and the clock has seconds written on it instead of hours. This means that there’s a “60” written at the top of the clock instead of a “12.” This is why swimmers often refer to the “60” as “the top.”

Similarly, the 30, called “the bottom,” is on the bottom of the clock. When doing a set, you might hear a coach or fellow swimmer say, “Let’s leave on ‘the bottom.’” This means leave the wall when the second hand gets to the 30. When reading the clock, the main hand that you need to pay attention to is the second hand.

Digital clocks

Although most pools still use traditional pace clocks, some universities and well funded pools now have digital clocks. These clocks work similarly to the traditional clock. The minutes and seconds are displayed, but in a digital format. Once again, you mainly need to pay attention to the seconds.

Although not as intuitive, the lingo used with digital clocks hold the same meaning : The 60 is still called “the top” and the 30 is still called “the bottom.”

How to Use a Pace Clock

You can use a pace clock for a few functions. Monitoring your speed and managing intervals are two key uses.

Timing Yourself

If you’re wondering how fast you’re swimming, you can utilise the pace clock to find out your speed. Knowing your speed is a good indicator of how well you’re swimming. If you’re faster today than you were yesterday, you should work on your stroke or practice habits. If your times are improving, you know that you’re on the right track.

The best way to get your time is to leave on “the top”. Leave the wall when the second hand gets to the 60. After you’ve swum the distance that you want to time, glance back up at the clock. This will help you determine what your time is.

For example: Say you’ve sprinted a lap of freestyle. When you touched the wall, the second hand was at the 23. That means you swam the lap in 23 seconds.

It gets more complicated if you leave the wall at a different time. If you left the wall on the :10 and touched the wall on the :37, then you’ll have to do some math to figure out your time. Take the first number and subtract it from the second to get 27. This means you swam the lap in 27 seconds.

Swimming Sets

Another instance where you’d use a pace clock is if you’re using intervals in practice. When keeping track of intervals, you’ll have to do some math.

For example: If the interval is the 45, then that means you’ll leave 45 seconds apart for each repeat. Say you leave on the :15 for the first repeat. You’ll add 45 seconds to that to figure out when you’ll leave for the second repeat. That means for the second repeat you’ll leave on “the top.” For the third repeat, add another 45 seconds to leave on the :45 and so on.

Hot Tip: If you’re not comfortable reading the clock yet, have someone else go first in the lane. That way all you have to do is follow their lead. Make sure that you leave 5 or 10 seconds after the person in front of you.

If you’re still confused, think about it like this: If you left your house at 7:00 and you need to be somewhere in 45 minutes, you’d have to be there by 7:45. Use this same math when you’re reading the pace clock.

The Benefits

Learning to read a pace clock can be a little tricky at first. But if you relate it to understanding a regular clock, it can make more sense. The more you practice reading a pace clock, the easier it will get. Keep in mind that utilizing the pace clock will help both your mind and body. You’re certainly on the right track to a fit and healthy lifestyle!

What is a Pace Clock

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 your swims, to time your rest intervals, and to keep you separated from the other swimmers in your lane.

What type of Pace Clock


Pace clocks can be digital or analog. 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.

How is a Pace Clock used


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.  

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.

How to use the Pace Clock During Your Swimming Workouts

It is essential for you to understand how to use the pace clock during your swimming workouts

The pace clock performs two important roles:
1.) It allows you to perform interval sets during your swimming workout (and on your own if need be)
2.) It is necessary in assessing your swimming improvement.

The typical pace clock has a minute hand and a second hand and is divided into 5 second increments from 5 - 60 seconds.

How to Understand Patterns on the Pace Clock  

As mentioned in the introduction, the pace clock is actually a very easy instrument to understand, and once you become familiar with interval based training, you will notice patterns develop on the clock for a given interval.

The pace clock is actually a very easy instrument to understand and necessary for your swimming. Besides being a crucial tool for assessing your improvement, it also provides a means of keeping track of your swim times and swims. If your pool does not have a pace clock, you can use the stopwatch function on a watch.

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