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There’s no question that swimming is one of the hardest sports. From hours-long training sessions in the pool to extra dryland training, swimmers put in the work, all for a race that can be as short as 20 seconds, or as long as 20+ minutes!
And when it comes to racing, swimmers have wide ranging opinions about which event is hardest. After surveying our community on Instagram, we’re breaking down our top 5 hardest swimming events.
Why is Swimming So Hard?
Swimming differs from other sports for a few key reasons:
- Water is dense: Water is 800x more dense than air, and when you swim you’re constantly working against that resistance.
- Full body engagement: You can definitely argue that other sports recruit the whole body, but swimming really does…with every stroke and every kick, you’re putting nearly all the muscles in your body to the test.
- Restricted breathing: When you swim, you have to stick to a breathing pattern – you can’t breathe whenever you want! This makes for extra challenging workouts and races.
What Makes a Swimming Event Hard?
The difficulty of a swimming event depends on a few criteria, and can vary from swimmer to swimmer.
- Distance: Doing 25 meters is going to be easier than doing 10 kilometers. The shorter the distance, the easier you could argue a specific race is (and vice versa). You could also factor in the pool course here. Long course meters (50m pool) would likely be considered the hardest variation of any event!
- Intensity: The intensity of your swimming (of the level of effort you expend) will differ depending on the distance of the race. For example, you wouldn’t swim at the same pace or intensity for a 50 free as you would in a 1,500 free.
- Stroke Variation: Each stroke challenges your body in a unique way. Depending on the stroke and the distance of the race, you might consider a specific event hard.
- Your Specialty: Each swimmer has their own specialty, strengths and weaknesses. A distance swimmer might think a 100 free is tough, while a sprinter would struggle to swim a 5k well. It’s all relative!
- Training Required: The amount of training required to complete a race also factors in. Think about it: If you were to pull someone off the street, and they knew how to swim, they could probably manage a 25 of each stroke. But ask them to do a 200 butterfly or a 400 IM, and that’s probably out of the question. Usually, the events that are a bit longer and involve a lot of stroke variation require more training.
The 5 Hardest Swimming Events
5. 200 Free
Coming in at number five is the 200 freestyle. It makes our list because it’s a challenging cross between sprinting and middle distance. You’re swimming for less than three minutes in most cases, which means you’re swimming fast and taxing your anaerobic energy system.
If you swim the 200 free correctly, you will finish pretty tired out. It’s important to keep your speed and breathing in check for the first half of the race. If you go out too fast and you don’t breathe enough, you’ll fall apart in the middle of the race and won’t finish strong.
4. 200 Backstroke
In fourth place we have another 200 – this time backstroke! Especially when raced long course, the 200 back is a killer for your legs, and it can feel like the wall will never come.
This event needs tons of specific training. You need to push yourself and make sure you can maintain your stroke tempo for the full 200. Don’t show up on race day and try to do this one without some prep!
3. 200 Butterfly
The third hardest event is the dreaded 200 butterfly. Even the most elite swimmers can fall apart toward the end of this race. It takes a massive amount of strength and stamina to swim the 200 fly well.
To build that stamina, work on race pace 50s and 100s butterfly during training, and incorporate lots of IM work and dryland training to strengthen your shoulders and increase your endurance.
2. 1,500 Free
In second place is the 1,500-meter free – or the mile. Looking back at our criteria for a race’s difficulty, the 1500 is almost eight times as long as the other events listed above, and will use the most energy. Plus, it requires specialized training, and a general predisposition to distance swimming. This is not a race every swimmer can do well.
1. 400 IM
And finally, the hardest swimming event: the 400 Individual Medley! This event challenges the body in nearly every way, and is a great test of how good a swimmer you are.
It consists of 4 100s, one of each stroke. It could be considered the “decathlon” of swimming.
Related: How to Swim the 200 IM
Swimmers who are good at the 400 IM (like Michael Phelps and Katinka Hosszú) need to have the speed of a sprinter, with the training capacity of a distance swimmer. Often, the best training for the 400 IM is similar to training for the 200 of each individual stroke – which is pretty tough.
And when you get up to a more elite level of competition, you may end up swimming the 400 IM twice in one day if the meet has prelims and finals. Maintaining speed for two rounds of this race is killer!
IMX Pro Challenge Workout
If you want to conquer the 400 IM, check out the IMX Pro Challenge Training Plan in the MySwimPro app. Enter your times and we’ll personalize each Workout to your speed and skill level, so you don’t have to worry about writing your own workouts every day. By the end of the Plan, you’ll be ready to race a 400 IM! Use code SWIM35 to save $35 on your first year of training!
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Try this advanced IMX Workout for a taste of what your IM training could look like.
- Distance: 4,400 meters
- Duration: 88 minutes
- 1 x 400 Freestyle @ 6:00
- 8 x 50 Kick IM Order @ 1:00
- 8 x 25 Drill IM Order @ :40
Main Set (1x)
- 4 x 50s Butterfly @ 1:00 Best Average (Broken 200fly)
- 4 x 100s FRIM* @ 1:30
- 4 x 50s Backstroke @ 1:00 Best Average (Broken 200bk)
- 4 x 100s FRIM @ 1:30
- 4 x 50s Breaststroke @ 1:00 Best Average (Broken 200br)
- 4 x 100s FRIM @ 1:30
- 4 x 50s Freestyle @ 1:00 Best Average (Broken 200fr)
- 4 x 100s FRIM @ 1:30
*FRIM = Replace the butterfly with freestyle in IM
8 x 50s IM @ :50 (Broken 400IM), 2 of each stroke, hold goal IM pace
Cool Down (2x)
- 4 x 50s Freestyle @ :55 Moderate pace
- 2 x 50s Freestyle @ :45 Endurance pace
Do you agree that the 400 IM is the hardest swimming event? Sound off in the comments! For more training tips, Workouts and Training Plans, download the MySwimPro app.
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