Pushing Through Fatigue: Honing Sprint Speed at the Finish

Photo Courtesy: Annie Grevers

By Emily Thirion, Swimming World College Intern.

Everyone knows a Sally Save-up in their program. They drive you absolutely insane. You’ve been grinding all practice long, and by the end of your final set, odds are you are pretty beat. However, the sandbagger in your local pool hangs out in the back of the lane for the bulk of the hardest sets. They sit in waiting until the final vestiges of practice, and then they make their move. During the last few laps where everyone else is struggling, this swimmer seems to be filled to the brim with energy and finishing speed. They exit the pool, patting themselves on the back for a job well done. Every swimmer knows that teammate.

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Photo Courtesy: Stephen Frink/Florida Keys News Bureau

However, pushing through the fatigue of a grueling race or practice to dig deeper when most people back off isn’t the same thing as a Sally Save-up. This is that second wind you get at the end of a workout. It’s that feeling you have even after you have put all of your effort into a practice. It comes from a well deep inside that you do not consciously have access to on a regular basis. We can see this demonstrated both in competition as well as in training. For example, you can watch milers put in a herculean amount of exertion for 64 laps straight and still manage to sprint the final two laps of their event.


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If you too are mystified by this phenomenon, you are in good company. Physiologically speaking, at a certain point, your body should not be able to expend any more effort. In daily life, this is our brain stops us from doing something that could be detrimental to our bodies. That being said, your brain that can be trained to push past this point, similarly to any other physical demands that you place on the muscles in your body. We as high-performance athletes must explore how to overcome fatigue to power through the end of our practices, races and so on.


Photo Courtesy: USA TODAY Sports-USA TODAY Sports

One way to accomplish this is through shifting your perception of how much work you have to do at any given time. We finish our races strong because we know that the end is near. One thing many coaches tell their swimmers is to take every practice one lap and one set at a time. If you can think of every rep as though it is the last one, it shifts your perspective away from the extent of which still has to be completed. When you think further ahead, your brain forces you to consider how much energy you will need to expend to complete the next set. This is a paralyzing mindset and doesn’t allow for mobility or growth. If we consider every lap to be out last, it fools us into thinking we are less exhausted and drained than we actually are.

Jul 14, 2015; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Chantal Van Landeghem of Canada (left) finishes ahead of Natalie Coughlin of the United States (middle) and Arianna Vanderpool-Wallace of the Bahamas (right) in the women's 100m freestyle swimming final during the 2015 Pan Am Games at Pan Am Aquatics UTS Centre and Field House. Mandatory Credit: Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports

Photo Courtesy: Erich Schlegel/USA Today Sports Images

Another way in which we can finish practice with speed is by making closing hard a habit. This needs to become a learned behavior like anything else that we do in practice. We don’t give up on the technical aspect of restructuring our stroke after one failed practice. We keep at it, working to make adjustments gradually over time. This is no different. It takes conscious effort and commitment in order to help us excel in the long run.

In a research study conducted by Dr. Martin Paulus et al., it has been found that the signals in the brain that allow elite adventurers to stay focused, calm and goal-oriented while exerting high levels of energy can be replicated in other instances, such as athletic competition. The example the study gave was a mindfulness training program used by entry-level Navy Seals in order to demonstrate that individuals can perform well under high levels of stress and fatigue. Maintaining composure and a high performance level is a learned trait, not just some innate ability that the select few possess. This internal motivation – an exhaustion “trump card” – can be recreated in athletes with practice.

Do you have any advice on honing sprinting speed at the end of a practice, or pushing through fatigue? If so, tell us in the comments below!

-All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.

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  1. Tammy Foor Collier

    My kids know them all so well. We termed it as “pull it out of their a**.” lol

  2. Joey Moffitt

    Danny MacElveen the fatigue. I don’t know how you sprinters do it. Hardest practices I had ever seen

  3. Danny MacElveen

    It’s an art form, Joey Moffitt would never understand

  4. Alberto Odio

    Fernando Odio Frer mira esta vara

  5. Kevin Fallon

    Not important or relevant but the tattoos are ridiculous. Boy are they gonna be hating life in their 60’s and onwards but who am I to judge ….”to each his own” is it?

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