What is the Toughest Race in Swimming?

Underwater swimming
Photo Courtesy: Jonas Gutzat

What is the Toughest Race in Swimming?

By Kate Santilena

Whether you are a sprinter, stroke specialist or distance swimmer, we all have that one race that just gives us the chills when our coach signs us up for it at a meet. Throughout warmup, when our friends and teammates ask: “Hey what events are you racing today?” and you utter that event, the immediate response of a wide eyed, “Oh… well… good luck. I’m sure you’ll do great” just assures you that you are about to be in some serious pain.

What event causes that reaction in our fellow swimmers? What race makes us feel we deserve to eat an entire pizza after we finish, followed by a five-hour nap? What race is truly the most difficult race in swimming? Here are some of the top choices.

200 Backstroke: The Leg Destroyer


Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

No swimmer has related to jello-legs so much until they have faced the 200-yard backstroke. This event forces swimmers to use their legs at 110 percent not only during the swim but also off the walls on their underwater dolphin kicks. At around the 125-yard marker on this race, the thought of, “Wow I can’t feel my legs” has never been more real. If you want to improve your 200 backstroke, definitely focus on your legs in practice.

50 Freestyle: The Flawless Race

UH Freestyle Female

Photo Courtesy: Jonas Gutzat

The 50 freestyle is that one race that even though it might be the shortest, it is the hardest race to drop time in. There is no room for error. This iconic splash-and-dash forces swimmers to ramp up from zero to 100 in a matter of hundredths of a second, which earns its spot as possibly the most difficult race in swimming.

200 Butterfly: 200 Cry… I Mean Fly

UH Underwater Fly

Photo Courtesy: Jonas Gutzat

Ouch. How did Michael Phelps do this? When signing up for this race, you already know it’s going to hurt. Figuring out how to start the race not too fast but just fast enough to have energy left to finish strong can be a fine line. With all your might, try to keep up that pretty technique for as long as you can, no matter how badly it hurts.

400 IM: The Ultimate Combo

UH Two breaststrokers

Photo Courtesy: Matt Holland

This event is one that combines all of a swimmer’s training into a single race. Swimmers who compete in the 400 IM are commonly seen as the most well-rounded, because in order to swim this race, you need to be proficient in each of the four strokes as well as the many turns. The 400 IM combines technique, endurance, and race strategy to possibly be the most difficult race in swimming.

200 Freestyle: The Sprint… No, Middle Distance… Wait, What?

UH Freestyle Male

Photo Courtesy: Matt Holland

Do you sprint this or pace it? The 200 freestyle is the race that falls right on the border-line of sprint and middle-distance racing. The make-or-break of this race comes down to the third 50. This moment is when holding speed or increasing speed is crucial, but you still have another 50 to go. Besides working fast pace sets, to develop this race, one of the many focuses should be geared towards third 50.

1650 Freestyle: The Commercial Break

UH Lap counting

Photo Courtesy: Matt Holland

Time for a snack break! The mile is the classic race we see on TV every four years during the Olympics that has a commercial break in the middle purely because of how long the race takes. It’s the ultimate test of a swimmer’s endurance splashed with proper stroke technique. One small mistake that can add 0.1 second repeated throughout the 1650 can add seconds to the final time. This race not only tests a swimmer’s physical ability but also their mental strength. Can they hold this pace for minutes at a time? Can they push now, even with five minutes left?

200 Breaststroke: The Ride and Glide

UH Breaststroke

Photo Courtesy: Jonas Gutzat

Finding the rhythm and holding the power of the breaststroke without losing technique is what makes or breaks this race. Figuring out the difference between a 200 breaststroke technique in comparison to a 100 breaststroke technique can be two totally different beasts and yet so similar all at the same time.

No matter what race gives you the chills, each one provides its own unique challenges. Whether it’s perfect execution or the balance of sprinting and pacing, each race will physically and mentally throw down obstacles a swimmer must overcome. From the 50 to the 1,650 – or any and all races in between – arguably every event can claim the title of the most difficult race in swimming.

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


  1. avatar
    Andy Ross

    400 IM!

    • Mary-Helen Hopkins

      Completely agree with 400 IM and 200 fly – 1500 free is no picnic either. Pick amongst those 3 for your best chance to win!

    • avatar

      2fly and 4im were my favorite and best events. Couldn’t stand the mile. Usually made it to abou 12 or 1300 and crapped out

  2. Greg Simmon

    400IM is the greatest test of a swimmer’s versatility and endurance. I think it proves the best all around swimmer.

  3. Wyatt Fate

    200 back long corse! It’s the most physically demanding race

    • Charlene Tallen

      Bruce Andersen you gotta kill it from start to finish on the 2free

    • Sandra Carr Upcraft

      My 14 year old would agree. She detests the 200 free. Will do the 200 fly all day long though.

    • Bruce Andersen

      Sandra Carr Upcraft I loved 200 Fly, just not Free. It was death!

    • Darrell Reed

      Sandra Carr Upcraft ha! I watched a couple young studs do an open water mile … all fly!!!

    • Sandra Carr Upcraft

      Darrell Reed she does fly every set while her teammates do free. It’s her ugliest stroke!

    • Deborah Dourlain

      Agreed! I swam that ONCE in college. Once was enough-considering I was a SPRINTER! I swam it at the U of R!

    • Susan L. Lansbury

      that’s so cool !!!! Deborah Dourlain, I have to say that the 200 fly long course kinda stinks as much!

  4. Anthony J Martinez

    For me these were the hardest: 1650 Free, 1000 Free, 400 IM, 200 Fly and 200 Breast (my hands would cramp at the 150 mark only reason it made my list).

  5. Mike Caldwell

    400 IM. I never finished any other races with a headache and feeling like I want to pass out like I would after a 400 IM. The last 200 most of the time was a blurry. I would be in so much oxygen debt that I would be dizzy after the breaststroke pull down that I couldn’t breath or see for the first 25… Unfortunately I was good at it so I got to swim it a lot…

  6. Brett Davies

    400 IM followed closely by 200 fly . I used to swim both of them back in my college days as well as the 1650

    • Mike Caldwell

      Robert Hamilton That’s because he did freestyle the whole 400…

  7. Tomas Thrainsson

    Back when I started training, we had one race that was basically the total killer: 400 butterfly!!
    One of my training buddies loved that and, yes, we all thought he was totally nuts ??

  8. Dick Simpson

    200 Free was always my toughest then 400 IM. The 200 IM was my favorite.

  9. avatar

    Iron Cross! :O 1000/1650 500 and 2fly. My son is swimming it today along w a really anchor Aughhhh

  10. MK Mahoney

    200 fly and for a non-breaststroke the 200 Br

  11. avatar

    400 IM

  12. avatar

    10k open water, wimps

  13. avatar
    Zander Meyers

    Im swimming the 400 IM ???????????

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