Sprint vs. Distance Swimmers: Who is Superior?

Bradlee Ashby celebrates winning the Men 200 LC Meter IM during the Swimming NZ Open Championships, Owen G Glenn National Aquatic Centre, Auckland, New Zealand, Wednesday 5 April 2017. Photo: David Rowland/www.bwmedia.co.nz
Photo Courtesy: BW Media

By Mark McCluskey, Swimming World College Intern.

Your coach walks out onto the pool deck, looks the team up and down, and then makes the announcement: “It is sprint/distance day!”

Half of the team is going to do a workout that involves the largest amount of yardage that can be crammed into a two-hour practice. The other half is going to do the largest amount of sprinting that can be fit into a two hour practice. Before this time, everybody in the pool has figured out what their bodies are naturally geared for. They know which workout they will be doing.

The reaction of the team is a mixture of groans and cheers. For some, they may as well have heard an announcement for their own funeral. Meanwhile, others are cheering like they just got handed a one-way ticket to Tokyo 2020. These reactions are not specific to a group, however. The cheers and groans are coming from those who are sprinters and those who are distance swimmers.

After the practice, the team will go into the locker room and have one of the oldest debates in swimming: Who’s got it worse, sprinters or distance swimmers? Everybody has a different opinion; some think that they have it the worst, while others admit that they chose their specialty because they think it’s easier. In the end though, nobody can ever come to a consensus.

So the question remains. Who is the true warrior? The sprinter or the distance swimmer?


Photo Courtesy: Doug Mills/The New York Times

The Argument for Distance Life

It is pure and simple. Distance swimmers do more than the sprinters. They swim for a longer time and they swim longer distances. Any swimmer can finish a 50, but how many can swim the 1,000 at every meet? Distance specialists will race for 15 or 20 minutes, while a sprinter will spend less than a minute in their race. They are able to maintain a constant speed for great distances, while a sprinter would merely fly through the first 50 and then get slower and slower throughout the race until they give up.


Photo Courtesy: Ian MacNicol

The Argument for Sprint Life

Sure, the distance group swims farther, but when did that mean everything? To be a successful sprinter, you must be technically sound in every aspect in your race. If you miss a flip turn, the race is lost. If your start is slow, then the race is lost. To be able to have a fully technically-sound race is nearly impossible, and that is the challenge that sprinters charge into every day. There is no “pace”; there is only all-out speed. If you let up for even a second, you won’t be successful. There is a reason why the fastest 50-freestyler at the Olympics is labeled “The Fastest Swimmer Alive.”


After looking at these two strong and slightly condescending arguments, it is pretty tough to decide who is truly tougher. The reality is that to specialize in distance or sprint is to take on a huge challenge in itself. While we constantly compare the two, both require similar characteristics to excel. They require mental, physical and emotional strength. Without these, you wouldn’t be able to nail the flip turn in your 100 or hold the perfect tempo in your 1650.

While we spend all of our time fighting over who is more impressive between ourselves, we don’t stop to take the time to realize that being a competitive swimmer in itself is an accomplishment. We are all in the pool challenging ourselves everyday. It doesn’t matter whether you are a sprinter or a distance specialist. No matter what, you should be pushing yourself to the max despite what group you’re in. In the end, your specialty better be taking on a challenge. In the end, people should not focus on who has it tougher, but rather focus on making themselves better.

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


  1. Eddie Ring

    Silly question. Different abilities. Equally necessary. But I’ll just leave the following here…
    Relays score double points.

    • Shawn Nowak

      Agree as an ex-sprinter turned distance both are equally difficult in different ways. The relay’s may get double points but you guys don’t get a bell rung on the last lap 😉

    • Eddie Ring

      can’t hear that damn bill anyway. In the good old days they would shoot her hand cannon off over your lane.

  2. Same race… From start to finish, the rest is training the required abilities, and working on your mental strength!

  3. Josh Stibrich

    There are also a lot more sprint events versus distance.

  4. avatar

    Hands down middle distance swimmers rule. We can sprint and hold a really good pace for a long time.

    • avatar


  5. Dick Beaver


  6. Sean Emery

    Being an athlete is about the “joie de vive”, that encompasses human experience in movement using the body. The greatest of athletes display this principle, and allow others to participate in that with them.

  7. Carol Goodey

    Different types so no contest