To anyone that does not swim, swimming is swimming! Up and down the pool, mostly breaststroke or freestyle. But as any swimmer will tell you, the difference between a distance swimmer and a sprinter is huge! I am a sprinter, I race 50 and 100 meters, mainly freestyle and butterfly. At a push, I can manage a 200m Individual Medley. One of the many joys of being a Masters swimmer is that you get to train with swimmers that specialise in a range of strokes, distances, disciplines and sports. I recently trained with an open water swimmer who has just completed the Channel swim. During one of our rest periods he told me he has just entered his next race…a 69 km swim through Lake Geneva! I cannot repeat my reaction to this but let me just say, as a sprinter, I would not know how to start with training for this!

Types of swimming

When you compete in swimming, racing can be divided into three main categories: short distance (or sprints), middle distance and long distance. A sprint race is considered a 50 or 100 meters swim, middle distance is a 200 or 400 meter swim and long distance is anything over 800 meters. Long distance can also feature Open Water swimming. There are four recognised strokes in swimming: Backstroke, Breaststroke, Butterfly and Freestyle. Swimmers can compete in all as a 50, 100 or 200 meter race. Additionally, the 4 strokes can be combined to form an Individual Medley (IM) and can be raced at a 100, 200 or 400 meter distance. All strokes can be raced over the 50, 100 and 200 meter distance but only freestyle raced over 400 meters, both in the pool and Open Water.


I returned to swimming two years ago having taken a 14 year gap to focus on other sports and work. I now compete mainly as a Masters swimmer. With a family and a full time job, putting in the hours in the pool that I used to is impossible. As a
junior swimmer I would train between 1014 hours in the water plus 2 hours in the gym. With age and other commitments I now train between 46 hours in the water but aim to match this in the gym working on muscle strength or flexibility. As a result, I am still getting faster!
It is important for junior swimmers to not specialise at a young age? they should aim to compete over the 200 meter distance. Middle distance swimmers (such as Michael Phelps) are generally the more ‘complete’ swimmer and can race in a variety of events and distances as the core skills can transfer. As a sprinter, I can focus my training on my specific needs but I can only race 1 or 2 events. I can develop my training needs in both the pool and in the gym, whereas for a middle distance or long distance swimmer there is no getting away from the fact that they need to get in the water more and put in the hours to develop the endurance they need.

The Elite

Elite swimmers, as with runners, train for their specific race and distance. I am sure we can all accept that Usain Bolt and Mo Farah train in a completely different way. In fact, their body composition and general make up will be completely different and, as a result, they are designed for a different race. Swimmers are exactly the same? there are sprinters, middle distance swimmers and long distance swimmers. The main difference comes down to if they are more of
an endurance based or power based athlete. For some athletes, they will always be limited by this when it comes to the Olympics as not all races are recognised as an Olympic event. The 100m IM is not an event due to the pool size and the only 50m event is a 50m Freestyle. If you are a pure sprint swimmer you only have 1 event the 50m freestyle. This means, if you are a Backstroke sprinter, you are likely to miss out on Olympic success. You could train your body to compete as a 100m swimmer, but this is challenging. Watch the 50m Men’s Freestyle final in the Olympics and compare their technique to what is used in the 200m Freestyle final it will appear completely different. The 50m freestyle final will often be called the
‘Splash and Dash’, you will see a very straight arm technique used, this requires a lot of upper body power it is explosive swimming. This power cannot be maintained for long and the technique will fade after 2024 seconds. The technique in the 200m Final will be far more efficient and elegant to watch.

Training Structure

Essentially, the training structure for each distance in the pool will not differ too much. Swimmers will have technique sessions, threshold training, kick sessions and quality sessions. Regardless of their distance, swimmers will always focus on their technique? developing a strong kick, good turns, starts and underwater speed will improve any swimmer. The biggest difference in their training is what happens outside of the pool. A sprinter could often be viewed as a lazy swimmer because they can get away with a lot less pool time. After developing their technique, the focus is on their power. You can look at Florent Manauduo, the 2012 50m Freestyle Olympic champion and tell he spends time in the gym. He is a powerful swimmer!
Cassandra Patten, Bronze Medalist in the 10km openwater event in the 2008 Olympics, supports this, saying “the main difference is that distance swimmers spend a lot more time in the pool and not so much in the gym. Sprinters can spend more time in the gym and not so much in the pool.” Mark Foster, a former World Champion in the 50m Freestyle, at times followed a training regime that would see him spend about 50 percent of his training time in the gym. As a sprinter, if a swimmer has an efficient technique, their challenge is to develop power, which is best developed in the gym, and then transfer that power in the water through their swimming technique. In addition to the power based training for a sprint swimmer it is essential that the swimmer remains flexible to ensure they can keep a good range of movement in their upper body and make full use of their technique.

Know Your Goals!

Whatever your standard or goals, you need to be clear with what you are aiming to achieve and train accordingly. Do not try to train for a sprint event and a long distance event. They use different energy systems and you will need to train your body in a different way to be successful. Whether you wish to complete as a Junior, Senior or Masters swimmer in a 50 meter sprint or a 10km open water (or even a 69km lake swim), be clear with your training needs and focus on quality training over quantity!


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