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The Stanford Distance Set: A Color Zone Context

January 25, 2013

Last week, a friend passed along a link to a vlog from about the Stanford distance crew performing a set as depicted here – This article shows some pretty mind-boggling intervals: 500 on the 5:00, followed by 5×100 fast on 2:00, 3 times through. Of course, the swimmers in the video made the set with ease. This isn’t about how hard they are training, really, it’s more about how FAST they are.

Super-Hard or Just Super-Fast? In Color
Back when I was working on the project, I adapted a “set parser” to evaluate a workout using John Urbanchek’s color-zone system. Basically, you entered your average 100 pace for your best 500 freestyle performance, and then typed in the set that you wanted, the “color zone” of the effort for each part of the set, and the approximate amount of rest that you wanted. The “set parser” would then go and evaluate your set and give you intervals that matched your training capabilities. So, I thought it would be interesting to do this for one of the Stanford swimmers in the video, and see how the set was structured. Below is the color-zone pace chart for Stanford’s Drew Cosgarea (@DrewCosgarea ) who went 4:17.87 in the 500 free at the 2012 NCAA championships.

Table 1: Color-zone pace chart for Stanford swimmer Drew Cosgarea, based on his performance at the 2012 NCAA Championships where he average 51.6 seconds per 100. From

Name 100 200 300 400 500
Zone 1 (white) :56.84 1:54.91 2:53.44 3:52.28 4:51.34
Zone 2 (pink) :55.03 1:52.78 2:51.55 3:50.98 4:50.91
Zone 3 (red) :53.98 1:49.13 2:44.72 3:40.59 4:36.68
Zone 4 (blue) :52.41 1:47.07 2:42.58 3:38.64 4:35.11
Zone 5 (purple) :50.31 1:43.08 2:36.79 3:31.10 4:25.86

So, looking at the way he was swimming in this set (4:48-4:53 per 500), he was going at about a zone 2 pace. So, this says that he is just jogging along at a basic endurance maintenance level on the 500s. Then, the 100s on 2:00 are as fast as possible. Well, this part of the set looks like a VO2max set – 1:1 rest to work ratio, with a total for the day of about 15:00 worth of work (or Zone 5 or Purple in color zone parlance). And indeed, he averaged 50.6, which is just a shade higher than the 50.3 that the color zone chart predicts for his VO2max pace.

Back Down to Earth
So, now, we can look at this with some context. These guys are doing a very smartly constructed workout, with very appropriate intervals for their speed level. They do a 500 at zone 2 (Pink), then 5×100 at VO2max (Zone 5/Purple). Repeat for a total of 3 sets. What would this look like to someone who swims a 7:30 for a 500 free? Using the enhanced set-parser at we get the following:

1 x 500 on 8:40 PINK/ Zone 2
3 x 100 on 2:30 PURPLE / Zone 5

So that’s it. The takeaway here is, yes, these Stanford guys are fast, indeed, some of the best of the best. But, there training is not extreme, it’s just appropriately contrived. This is not to say that the set is easy, sure, anyone can make it through this set the first time if their intervals are set appropriately, and they meter their efforts as well. Following through the second and third time will test your mettle, no doubt. But setting it up realistically based on what you are actually capable of is the first step. Another facet of that is how fast the 100s are swum. This group of guys could probably have rolled out :47-:48 seconds on the first repeat of the 5x 100 on 2:00, and maybe even held under :50 for the first set of 5, but had they been that irrationally exhuberant, they would no doubt have crashed and burned.

You can see the pace chart for the 7:30 500 freestyler in Table 2 below, or go to and generate your own color-zone based sets.

Table 2: Color-zone pace chart for a swimmer whose best 500 is 7:30, that is, an average of 1:30 per 100. From

Pacing Zones: (base = 1:30)
Name 100 200 300 400 500
Zone 1 (white) 1:39.33 3:20.81 5:03.10 6:45.92 :00.00
Zone 2 (pink) 1:36.18 3:17.09 4:59.79 6:43.66 8:28.39
Zone 3 (red) 1:34.33 3:10.71 4:47.85 6:25.50 8:03.51
Zone 4 (blue) 1:31.59 3:07.11 4:44.12 6:22.09 8:00.78
Zone 5 (purple) 1:27.92 3:00.15 4:34.00 6:08.91 7:44.60
One Comment
  1. Great post Rob, thanks for adapting it for us “regular” folks!

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