The Age-Old Debate: What is the Hardest Event in Swimming?

Phelps-Exhaustion

The Age-Old Debate: What is the Hardest Event in Swimming?

By Elise Devlin, Swimming World Intern

There’s nothing worse than getting a wide eyed, worrisome expression from your friend after you answered their question, “So, what event do you have next?” We’ve all been there. Lurking somewhere in your meet lineup is only the worst event to exist. But which event is that? Maybe the 400 IM, with its strict demand of endurance in every stroke, all packed into one race. Or is it the 200 cry…I mean fly? C’mon, who really thinks eight whole laps of butterfly is a stroll in the park anyway? And then of course there is the 1500 freestyle. There is really just no escape in that one.  

Whether you are biased due to the fact that you’re a regular participant in one of these events, or you are the opposite and can’t imagine yourself even getting through on

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Photo Courtesy: SIPA USA

e of these events, everyone has an opinion on the controversial question of, “what is the most difficult race in swimming”.  

After surveying my swim team at Towson University, it was clear everyone had different opinions on which event was the hardest. With the winner of this survey being the 400 IM, it could be different for another swim team. However, these six events were the most voted on by my team, and each remain strong contenders for which event in the sport of swimming is the most difficult.

200 Free

So do you sprint this whole race and try not to die? Do you pace the whole thing and hope for the best? The answer is both. This event can be considered one of the most difficult because of the race strategy that comes with it. It’s pretty much hanging out on the border of sprint and mid-distance, leaving you with no choice but to rely on your endurance to hold a fast pace for the entire race. All about that third 50. 

200 Fly

One impulsive, “I’m going to pick it up now so I can get ahead,” can ruin you in this event. If you take it out too fast, you’ll never survive the second half of the race, or you will, but it just won’t be pretty to watch. But if you take it out too slow, you could have too hard of a time catching back up the whole eight laps. Meanwhile, the more you get tired doing this stroke, the harder it is to maintain good technique. It definitely takes a different breed of person to proudly call this event their race of choice.  

400 IM

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Photo Courtesy: SIPA USA

If you aren’t proficient in each of the four strokes, you can kiss this race goodbye. This is right up there in the rankings for being the hardest event in swimming because of its combination of every stroke, the endurance you must have to swim it, and the perfect strategy you must stick to. Also, you are forced to give it your all in every single portion of the race, due to the fact that everyone else’s strategy is different than yours, depending on their strongest and weakest stroke. For all you know, your opponent could be an amazing breaststroker and cruise right past you when you least expect it.  

1500 Free

It still confuses me how some people voluntarily declare themselves distance swimmers, but we really couldn’t get by without them.  Swimming for 15+ minutes while trying to keep a steady pace and stay with your competition is not in the slightest bit easy. Small mistakes will kill you in this race by adding up and creating gained time, which is the last thing you want after finishing this long of a race and giving it your all. This is considered by many to be one of the hardest races in the sport because of the amount of time you must stay mentally strong, and pace yourself correctly for 15 minutes or more.

200 Back

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Photo Courtesy: PATRICK B. KRAEMER

Enjoy the feeling in your legs as much as you can before you swim this race, because I can promise you it won’t be there after.  Underwaters and a powerful, consistent kick are key to staying strong in this race. It’s always important to have a plan of attack, so that your legs don’t give out on you too early. Once this happens, the outcome of your 200 back won’t exactly be promising.  

200 Breast

The difference in pace for a 200 breaststroke versus a 100 breaststroke can be huge. It can be challenging when trying to find that perfect rhythm to carry you through this race, while also maintaining a steady yet fast pace throughout the entire eight laps. But don’t let your technique go or else this event can go downhill from there on.

187 comments

  1. Paul Kaplan

    At NJ states 200fly is 2races from 4IM… at finals u have 20 / 25 minutes recovery

  2. John Dussliere

    All those pool bound answers are cute. Try the 10k or 25k sometime out in the ocean. 😎

  3. Jeff Strahota

    Phelps said 200back was the hardest. That and the lung-busting 2brst need more love here. As for the 1500, it sucks, but is it really the hardest??

    • Bill A Davis

      Jeff Strahota I think other events will whip you more in the moment but the tail on a 1650/1500 is far longer.

    • Denise Letendre

      Jeff Strahota I say long course 200 back. That last 50 is so painful on the legs and you have no idea how close you are to finishing because you can’t see the wall.

    • Rich Davis

      Jeff Strahota the 1500 because you have to pace yourself correctly and concentrate on keeping that pace. Probably not as body breaking as the 400IM & 200Fl though.

    • Zlatko Boko

      Jeff Strahota when and where Phelps said that ?

  4. Junior Melendez

    400 IM sin duda… y casi en paralelo el 200 Back…Si no mueren tus piernas, muere tu oxigeno y viceversa…

  5. Steve Taggart

    400 IM LC, followed by 2 BR short course. The underwaters are misery.

  6. Eney Jones

    Any work out that starts at 5 am. But I’d go with John Dussliere ‘s answer

  7. Gary Langhans

    You can swim a relaxed mile. You can swim a relaxed anything for that matter and it won’t be that bad. A 200 Fly hurts whether you are trying to keep it totally relaxed or you are busting out. The last 10 strokes always hurt.

  8. avatar
    Coach Bob

    It’s like saying the 3000 steeple Chase is harder than the Marathon.
    Or saying that a five rounds UFC fight is more grueling than a twelve round boxing match up.
    The distance freestyle events are the toughest.
    The goat MP tried the 400 free at Worlds in his prime in 2005 and did not make the finals. He never tried it again. That should say something about the mid and long distance events.

    • avatar
      Craig Lord - Swimming World Editor-in-Chief

      Fair points, Coach Bob, though fair to note too that 2005 did not represent Phelps at the peak of his power… it was a down season of recuperation and reset: he bypassed the 200 ‘fly at world titles and tried some new stuff… his 3:50 in heats left him well shy, 18th… two places ahead of a certain Paul Biedermann… seasons come, seasons go…
      In general I think the answer to this question is: events are hardest when they’re not yours, Phelps 400 free perhaps (though, lest we forget, he clocked 3:46.73 as an 18-year-old in 2003, third ranked in the world that year behind Mssrs Thorpe and Hackett) but, you know, stuff like 1500m free for Simone Manuel (really tough) – or 100 free for Lotte Friis (tough in race conditions mentally because she, among thousands of others, would not thrive); 200 breaststroke for Ada Kok; 200 ‘fly for Adam Peaty and 400IM for Anthony Ervin… that’s tough 🙂
      And then there’s this: the hardest event can be the one you best excel in – on the day it comes down, the day it doesn’t work, the day that was not what it might and could have been for whatever reason…
      “The hardest swim event?” is a fun question but also very shallow, the richness to be found in the depths of beautiful complexity and the experience of the individual, not the herd 🙂

  9. Cindy Adair

    Open Water 25km, 1500m, 200 Fly, 200 Breast and 400 IM

  10. Spencer Rausch

    Dave Toffy I’m gonna say the 200 fr. that’s not a middle distance event anymore. It’s a full blown sprint. The aerobic conditioning and mental strength needed to hit that 3rd 50 with everything you got knowing you’re about to face the worst pain on the final lap is straight brutality.

    Change my mind.

    • Zlatko Boko

      Spencer Rausch to compare 200 free and 200 fly is …well…just don’t do it…

    • Lucy Lewis

      Vic Stawik I agree. There is something beautiful about the 200 fly but the 200 back is long and a bit boring

  11. Glenn Mills

    They’re all hard if you want to be the best.

  12. Vic Stawik

    That 200 fly and 400 IM those hit you in the core od your being, those make you delirious, make you believe you are going to die and sometimes wish you would to make it stop

  13. avatar
    Bill S

    It all depends on who is going to swim. Is it a sprinter or a distance swimmer. Should it be maximum speed or not, is it in a 50m pool? Is the swimmer is very well trained as a ” top” swimmer?

  14. Grant Forbes

    Open water doesn’t count as there not pure swimming events they are whole different sport all together

  15. avatar
    Caroline Baker

    I am a flier, mostly 200 fly. It never gets easier, you get fast but at the end of each 200 fly you are still completely dead. The worst combination for me is 400 IM trials and finals on Friday, 100 fly and 200 IM trials and finals on Saturday, and 200 fly trials and finals on Sunday.

  16. Zlatko Boko

    200 fly…that is the only one you can not swim slow…

    • Glenn Fenwick

      Zlatko Boko 200 fly against 400 IM no comparison 400 IM wins hands down

    • Zlatko Boko

      Glenn Fenwick this attitude telling me that you never had 200 fly experience…
      Fair enough , agree to disagree…

    • Glenn Fenwick

      Zlatko Boko I might not have 200 fly experiance but the swimmers I coach would say the same

    • Glenn Fenwick

      Zlatko Boko then again a good 10k open water sorts people out which I have experiance 😬

    • Zlatko Boko

      Glenn Fenwick you are not competitive (pool) swimmer my dear senor , open water and this subject we are talking about does not have anything in common…there are so many things in open water swimming which makes you tired and have nothing to do with swimming itself…

    • Glenn Fenwick

      Zlatko Boko I coach pool swimmers and from what they say its 400 IM that hurts the most but we all have opinions.

  17. Susan Jane

    My daughter swims 200 breast 200 fly and 400 I.M at the Nationals and she will say the 200 breast is the hardest

  18. Kathleen Christiansen

    So it entirely depends on the swimmer. Some swimmers are built for distance and some swimmers are built for speed. And they each have their “hardest event “.

  19. Sarah Hornby

    200 back! I was an IM’er and a 200 fly and back stroker at almost every meet. Nothing compared to the feeling of pain after a good solid 200bk.

  20. Alan Bruce Gresham

    I’m a drop dead sprinter , 50 & 100 freestyle who bet someone I could do better than his time in the 400 IM. It hurt worse than anything ever….

  21. Tracy Dickey

    My sons best events are 200 fly 400 IM and 1500. He hates the 200 IM because he hates changing the strokes that you r sprinting. He says it hurts.

  22. avatar
    FLMamaof3

    1. 200 Fly LCM
    2. 400 IM LCM
    3. 1500 Free LCM

  23. Chris Driwinga

    Simple way to look at it. What hurts going fast or slow? 200 fly! You can cruse to the finish in all the others if your dead. But your going to feel the pain till you touch that wall in the 200 fly.

  24. Michael Hollowell

    I was a 200 flyer. By the end of the backstroke in the 400IM, I was done.

  25. avatar
    Anonymous

    200 Fly
    1650

  26. avatar
    Wayne McCauley

    Just look at MP, he came within 0.3 seconds of the world record 200 LCM back. He did a 2:11 200 breast, he held the world record in the 200 fly, and was one of the fastest 200 free men ever. But he was truly happy when he gave up the 400 IM. Of all his records that one is still there!

  27. avatar
    Adrian Montoya

    200back if you have swam it you can’t walk afterward.
    400 Im you can’t breath or walk
    200 fly never
    Mile. Can’t say it sucks

    • Chris Henry

      Patrick J Willey 200 fly over 200 free any day!!!!
      (I’m actually serious)

    • Chris Henry

      Lynette Besonday-Washburn 200 fly is the best!
      Breastroke should
      not even be an event.
      Why, I could have been an Olympian in the IM if it only consisted of Fly, back, free!

    • David Fan

      I feel you man! Always knew I was doomed if I didn’t get far ahead on fly and back!

    • Kelly Spencer Williams

      Lynette Besonday-Washburn my son swims both those events. He LOVES breast, doesn’t love fly (but his fly is beautiful)

    • Katie Wray

      David Fan same. Lol. I relied on my fly and back. PRAYED on breast. And just tried to hold on for dear life in free.

    • Kelly Spencer Williams I’m a breaststroker but the 100 is as far as I want to do. As a teen I did the 200 but now as a masters swimmer at 57 the 200 is a killer☺️

  28. Chris Henry

    200 free.
    Too short to pace and too long to sprint.

    • Evan Townsend

      Chris Henry 200 free (or 200 of any stroke) is a controlled sprint. Now, the 400 IM is too short to pace and too long to sprint.

  29. Amy Feasey

    400 IM LC. Pure pain & I was a distance swimmer!

  30. David Fan

    400 IM if you don’t have a good breaststroke! Nothing like dreading that third 100!

  31. Katie Wray

    When your coach doesn’t realize that the 200 fly follows immediately behind the 400 IM. Then you make finals in both. And he won’t let you scratch…. Legit got out of the water and right back on the block. Worst 200 fly time in a final I ever put up 😂😂

  32. Jessica Cole-Crawford

    400IM is brutal especially if you are like I was with a weak breaststroke leg. Just as painful to watch as it was to swim lol.

  33. Emma Carew

    I’m gonna have to be biased and say 200 brst🙄 there’s nothing like trying to a do a pullout on that last 25 when you can’t feel any part of your body! Not only that but I feel like the pain lasts a little bit longer with it being the slowest stroke😂 but I also bow down to anyone who swims the mile, 2fly, 2bk, and the 4IM. All are blah😫

  34. Sasha Green

    I love the 400IM 😅
    I’d have to say… The 200fr

  35. Tim Everds

    The 139 mile four way English Channel crossing by Sarah Thomas. 400 im is a great event. But it’s not even a 10 k.

  36. Anthony J Martinez

    For the races I swam from hardest to easiest: 1650 Fr, 200 Fly, 400 IM, and 500 Fr. I never swam 200 Br because I was terrible at breaststroke that plus my hands would cramp after 150. Even though those races were brutal on me, I regret not continuing after my college years.

  37. 200 fly, if you dont pace right and run out of gas before finish line you are done for. 200 free, have to race the entire thing to do well, as it is most popular stroke. and 10k anything, pool and open water

    • Milena Babic

      Julie Taylor the 400 IM for sure, that 3rd leg…… 😩

    • Milena Babic

      Julie Taylor it’s all about the negative split though isn’t it….

    • Milena Babic

      Julie Taylor swimming is a life long learning journey

    • Stella Matthews

      And I’d say 200m fly would have to be the toughest event, at least you get to break up the strokes in an IM

  38. Christopher Sykes

    400IM the true test of each stroke at distance that is not sprint nor distance.

    • Oak Wattanasirakul

      Christopher Sykes i disagree, 25 yard breast is definitely a real man’s event 😎

    • Christopher Sykes

      Oak Wattanasirakul ya you would say that. You would 1 full stroke in after your underwater then you’d be at the wall

  39. Scott Vank

    The whole cool down after a race…. How many time do you hear a coach say to a swimmer “finish your cool down”

  40. Danny Gassaway

    200 Breaststroke. The most challenging technique wise. I’d take distance free any day!

  41. Ross Bohlken

    I remember when they introduced the 25 yard events in masters swimming…. Scott you were so excited!! Lol

  42. Nick Daudelin

    50 ya free
    What a wave
    Ocean mile swim 2nd
    Into current.

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