What is the Toughest Race in Swimming?

Whether you are a sprinter, stroke specialist or distance swimmer, we all have that one race that just gives us the chills when our coach signs us up for it at a meet. Throughout warmup, when our friends and teammates ask: “Hey what events are you racing today?” and you utter that event, the immediate response of a wide eyed, “Oh… well… good luck. I’m sure you’ll do great” just assures you that you are about to be in some serious pain.

What event causes that reaction in our fellow swimmers? What race makes us feel we deserve to eat an entire pizza after we finish, followed by a five-hour nap? What race is truly the most difficult race in swimming? Here are some of the top choices.

200 Backstroke: The Leg Destroyer


Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

No swimmer has related to jello-legs so much until they have faced the 200-yard backstroke. This event forces swimmers to use their legs at 110 percent not only during the swim but also off the walls on their underwater dolphin kicks. At around the 125-yard marker on this race, the thought of, “Wow I can’t feel my legs” has never been more real. If you want to improve your 200 backstroke, definitely focus on your legs in practice.

50 Freestyle: The Flawless Race

UH Freestyle Female

Photo Courtesy: Jonas Gutzat

The 50 freestyle is that one race that even though it might be the shortest, it is the hardest race to drop time in. There is no room for error. This iconic splash-and-dash forces swimmers to ramp up from zero to 100 in a matter of hundredths of a second, which earns its spot as possibly the most difficult race in swimming.

200 Butterfly: 200 Cry… I Mean Fly

UH Underwater Fly

Photo Courtesy: Jonas Gutzat

Ouch. How did Michael Phelps do this? When signing up for this race, you already know it’s going to hurt. Figuring out how to start the race not too fast but just fast enough to have energy left to finish strong can be a fine line. With all your might, try to keep up that pretty technique for as long as you can, no matter how badly it hurts.

400 IM: The Ultimate Combo

UH Two breaststrokers

Photo Courtesy: Matt Holland

This event is one that combines all of a swimmer’s training into a single race. Swimmers who compete in the 400 IM are commonly seen as the most well-rounded, because in order to swim this race, you need to be proficient in each of the four strokes as well as the many turns. The 400 IM combines technique, endurance, and race strategy to possibly be the most difficult race in swimming.

200 Freestyle: The Sprint… No, Middle Distance… Wait, What?

UH Freestyle Male

Photo Courtesy: Matt Holland

Do you sprint this or pace it? The 200 freestyle is the race that falls right on the border-line of sprint and middle-distance racing. The make-or-break of this race comes down to the third 50. This moment is when holding speed or increasing speed is crucial, but you still have another 50 to go. Besides working fast pace sets, to develop this race, one of the many focuses should be geared towards third 50.

1500 Freestyle: The Commercial Break

UH Lap counting

Photo Courtesy: Matt Holland

Time for a snack break! The mile is the classic race we see on TV every four years during the Olympics that has a commercial break in the middle purely because of how long the race takes. It’s the ultimate test of a swimmer’s endurance splashed with proper stroke technique. One small mistake that can add 0.1 second repeated throughout the 1500 can add seconds to the final time. This race not only tests a swimmer’s physical ability but also their mental strength. Can they hold this pace for minutes at a time? Can they push now, even with five minutes left?

200 Breaststroke: The Ride and Glide

UH Breaststroke

Photo Courtesy: Jonas Gutzat

Finding the rhythm and holding the power of the breaststroke without losing technique is what makes or breaks this race. Figuring out the difference between a 200 breaststroke technique in comparison to a 100 breaststroke technique can be two totally different beasts and yet so similar all at the same time.

No matter what race gives you the chills, each one provides its own unique challenges. Whether it’s perfect execution or the balance of sprinting and pacing, each race will physically and mentally throw down obstacles a swimmer must overcome. From the 50 to the 1,650 – or any and all races in between – arguably every event can claim the title of the most difficult race in swimming.

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

By Kate Santilena | Swimming World Magazine

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