Article image

by Terry Heggy

July 29, 2019

Endurance athletes can benefit from being able to sprint

We know that a tortoise will beat a hare over a long distance. But it’s just as obvious that a tortoise can be defeated by a faster tortoise.

I am definitely a tortoise and would rather race a 10K than a 50 any day. I admire sprinters for their explosive power and ability to withstand incredible intensity, but I will never understand why they would willingly choose to compete in something that allows no room for error. To me, the thought of entering a sprint race is terrifying.

At the same time, I totally understand why sprinting in practice helps distance swimmers perform better on race day. Sprinting recruits different components of your metabolism (including anaerobic systems), which must be trained for optimal benefit.

The Need for Speed

Successful sprint racing requires mental focus and strict adherence to race planning (start, breathing strategy, turn execution, and stroke cadence, etc.), but these strategic decisions are made before the race begins. Smart distance swimmers also start with a strategy in mind but are far more likely to make strategic decisions in mid-race. Here are six race decision points where a burst of sprint speed can alter the outcome of the entire race.

  1. Latching on—Whether it’s to avoid the chaos of a triathlon start, to align yourself with a reliable pacer or expert navigator, or to draft off someone faster, the ability to sprint to catch another swimmer’s draft can make a huge difference in energy savings and sustainable speed.
  2. Hanging on—If the person you’re drafting suddenly surges in an attempt to drop you, a quick burst of sprinting may be all it takes to settle back in to a comfortable spot in the slipstream.
  3. Changing packs—Sometimes the leader of a draft line fails to navigate well and pulls the group off course. If you notice another group with a better navigator, you’ll need sprint speed to bridge the gap to join the other swimmers.
  4. Blasting the buoys—Open water swimmers often slow down approaching buoys, leaving you a perfect opportunity to break away with a strong sprint. The same philosophy applies to turns in pool swims. Any change of direction is a chance for a sprint-ready athlete to create separation.
  5. Exploiting mistakes—If a competitor hesitates for any reason (a pause while sighting, missing a turn, taking a hydration break, a navigational error, etc.), instantly respond with a hard sprint to leave them behind.
  6. Sending a message—When you decide to pass a competitor, make sure your message is clear: “This is MY race now, and there’s nothing you can do about it!” Sprinting punctuates that message. A slow tempo increase merely incites them to speed up themselves, where a dominating burst is more likely to induce resignation. (One more hint: When passing single-side breathers in open water, approach and pass on the side they don’t breathe to.)

I didn’t mention the sprint to the finish because we all know about that one. The more you build your sprinting metabolism, the earlier you can pull away on your final charge.

Training for Speed

Sprint training builds your capacity to handle faster speeds for a short period of time. But when those short-duration energy stores become depleted (between about 20 seconds and a couple of minutes), you feel out of gas. Train yourself to recognize those depletion points and how to return to your aerobic metabolism without collapse.

Swim fast fresh

Short, all-out sprints (25–50 yards/meters) train you to achieve maximum power without having your stroke fall apart. The most common mistake distance swimmers make when shifting into sprint gear is getting sloppy. Practice sprinting while holding your form. Keep your kick fast and shallow, hold your core tight, and keep your breathing smooth and in line. Do these sprints when you’re fresh, and take plenty of rest between them (two to three minutes) to ensure that you’re really learning how to swim well at a maximum effort.

Increase your cadence when doing sprint sets but not to the point where you slip. Occasionally count your strokes to verify that you’re maintaining efficiency. You might add a stroke or two per 25, but if it starts becoming three to five strokes, you’re probably thrashing. When you sprint at maximum effort, relish the discomfort you feel and embrace the idea that enduring such agony will pay off when you leave your distance competitors eating bubbles.

Swim fast tired

Sets to help you learn to accelerate quickly and then return to an appropriate distance pace include the following:

  • Fartleks—Fartlek is a Swedish word for “speed play,” which defines sets that include steady swimming interspersed with short sprints. A fartlek set might consist of 100 strokes easy followed by 20 strokes at top speed, or 85 yards/meters easy, 15 yards/meters hard. The sprints should be short enough to be swum at full speed for the entire sprint duration, with the swimmer resuming a steady pace immediately upon ending the sprint.
  • The passing lane—Two swimmers of comparable speed split a lane and swim 100 yards/meters at the same moderate pace. Then one swimmer tries to pass the other and gain an entire body length on the next 25, dropping back to the even pace for the next 100. Then the other swimmer sprints, repeating the pattern until they’ve swum for 15 minutes total.
  • Bookends—Swim 3 x 100s on a sendoff that gives you about five seconds rest. Keep the total time the same on the first and third one, but make the second one five seconds faster. The challenge is to gain all five seconds of that advantage during the middle 50 (i.e., 25 moderate, 50 sprint, 25 moderate).

These sprint training strategies are meant to supplement a program of pace-based distance training. If you’re getting adequate yardage under your belt, a couple of sprint sets every two weeks is a good target. The goal is to swim your distance races with confidence that when a sprint is needed, you are ready to rock.


  • Technique and Training


  • Distance
  • Workouts
  • Writing Workouts