Mike's Mailbag: Sprinting vs. Distance


By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent

Every Monday, I answer questions from swimmers around the country. If you have any questions, please email me at swimmingstories@gmail.com.

Dear Mike,

I have always been a sprinter. When practices split up between distance, mid distance, and sprint I am always in sprint. That's not to say I have never done a distance set. I have, and they are awful. I have respect for distance swimmers, but the distance swimmers on my team don't seem to have a respect for sprinters.

It has become a problem that every time we split up during practice you will here distance swimmers say things about the sprint practice. Last week distance swimmers ranted for 10 minutes about how easy sprinting was and how it's a joke. It's seriously bringing me down. I feel like they don't view us as actual swimmers. They just don't seem to have any respect for us and it's dividing our team. A wedge has been put into the team dynamics.

I just don't know how to handle the situation.

Disrespected Sprinter

Hey Disrespected Sprinter,

This problem of “Sprinting Vs. Distance” isn’t just on your team; it’s on every team. Every team has a group of distance swimmers who claim sprinters don’t work hard, and every team has a group of sprinters who claim distance swimming is boring.

Here’s the thing: They’re both wrong.

Sprinting is sort of like chopping a wood block with a singular karate chop. The action itself takes an instant – it’s over in a blink of an eye. But do you think an average person can just step up and chop a block of wood in half? Of course not. They’d break their hand. It takes preparation, training, focus, and a unique skill set to be able to achieve that. And this amount of effort, preparation, and intensive focus is very similar to sprinting -- it all comes down to one moment in time.

Sometimes, distance swimmers don’t understand this.

Sprinting requires the greatest amount of focus and energy packed into the shortest interval of time. It’s intense, much more than distance swimming. Think back to the 2008 Olympics: one billion people watched Jason Lezak as he was about to dive into the water, anchoring the 400 freestyle relay. You think sprinting is easy? Place yourself in Lezak’s position, at that moment in time. Talk about intense. Lezak was able to do what he did not because he slacked off in practice, and also not because he swam 50 miles a day like distance swimmers, but because he trained himself at an extreme high intensity his entire career. He was ready for that moment. He had prepared for that moment. He had visualized it, trained for it, and was ready.

He didn’t become a legend because he slacked off.

And yet, distance swimmers sometimes choose to ignore high-intensity moments like this. (Sprinters make comments about distance swimmers, too, for the record.) Perhaps because sprint training is slightly different than distance training. Sprinters often do sets that use more energy and require more rest – some distance swimmers view this training as somehow “easier.”

Well, guess what, distance swimmers? Sprinting is not easier. It’s actually, technically, much more intense. It’s your body, mind, and soul working at maximum intensity. There’s no zoning out in sprinting. There’s no 80% or 85% here. It’s 100% effort.

Here’s the thing: Would these distance swimmers on your team make fun of Jason Lezak? Would they say, “Hey Jason! You don’t work hard enough!” Or would they give Natalie Coughlin grief for being a “sprinter”? “Hey Natalie, you’re a slacker!” Of course not. And it really goes both ways. In college as a distance swimmer myself, I watched the sprinters do things I’d never want to do as a 400 IMer. Breath control, race pace, all-intense all-the-time type of stuff. They worked their butts off, and by the Big Ten Championships, it showed.

The thing is, your event that you swim doesn't "make" you a certain type of swimmer. Only you decide that. There are intense, hard-working, blue-collar sprinters just like there are slacking, coasting distance swimmers. We need to understand that it's not what you swim, but how you swim.


What we really need to do is stop comparing things that shouldn’t be compared. Distance swimming is entirely different compared to sprinting. Sprinting is entirely different compared to distance swimming. The skill sets are different, the training is different, and the events are different. Sure, it all happens in “the pool” as part of “swimming” but comparing the two is comparing apples versus oranges.

Nathan Adrian is just as hard of a “worker” as Katie Ledecky. Just because Nathan Adrian might not practice 30x1000s doesn’t mean he’s not working hard. If you don’t believe me, drive over to Cal or Michigan and watch one of their sprint workouts. They’re intense.

So, Disrespected Swimmer, the next time a distance swimmer comes up to you and tells you that you aren’t training hard enough, or “sprinters are slackers,” or whatever else they might say, tell them to enter the 50 or 100 freestyle at the next swim meet. Or put them on the last leg of a relay, down a body length, with the entire team screaming at them, with the entire championship resting on their shoulders...

Then, after you beat him/her, or after he/she gets beat in that last yard by .01, invite them over to the sprinting practice group and explain how they can get faster. Once they understand, once they go through a month of sprinting workouts, the constant intensity, the every day “being on” and giving 100%, they’ll begin to understand.

And that’s really what this all comes down to: We love to make fun of things we don’t understand. But instead of making fun of each other, we should motivate each other, push each other, and understand that every aspect of our sport has its challenges. We should be thankful for our given skill set in the pool while recognizing and appreciating the varied talents of others.