How Am I Able to Sprint at the End of a Really Tough Set?

Olivier Poirier-Leroy is a former national level swimmer based out of Victoria, BC. In feeding his passion for swimming, he has developed YourSwimBook, a powerful log book and goal setting guide made specifically for swimmers. Sign up for the YourSwimBook newsletter (free) and get weekly motivational tips by clicking here.

Sammy Save Up. Sammy Sandbagger.

Either you know a swimmer who does this, or maybe you have rather sheepishly done this yourself on occasion. For a majority of the set this swimmer will loiter at the back of the lane, biding their time, for those precious last couple reps where they will suddenly be overcome with speed and energy while the rest whither and grind.

They will thunder into the finish, proudly look up at the pace clock, and convince themselves of a job well done.

Yeah, that swimmer.

What I am talking about isn’t necessarily that. It’s that little surge of energy and speed that we get at the end of a race, set, or a workout. It’s when, in spite of the tremendous effort already given, we are able to summon will from an unseen reservoir, and barrel across the finish line.

It’s not uncommon to see this in competition as well as training. The poor distance swimmers, who after giving their all for the better part of a quarter of an hour are still able to sprint to the wall on the last 50m.

If you are confused by this, perplexed by the fact that you had already been giving your all, and were somehow still able to pull off a faster-than-expected final effort, you aren’t alone. After all, the notion that at the end of a maximal effort, when your muscles and energy stores are depleted, that you can not only still maintain the effort but also speed up is something that physiologists have been puzzling over in recent years.

The reason is this: long before you hit your physiological wall, that point where your body cannot exert a single further ounce of effort, your brain is actively hitting the brakes. This is a function of survival; the brain pulls the hand brake on you before your lungs, heart or muscles call it a day.

To test this out, in 1986 French researcher Dr. Michel Cabanac asked a group of volunteers to perform a wall sit. He offered monetary compensation for each 20 second interval that the volunteers held the position, ranging from a couple pennies to several dollars. Unsurprisingly, those who were offered greater financial incentive held out the longest. While predictable, it demonstrated that how long the wall-sit was held was reliant on motivation coming from the brain, and not because their legs or hips gave out.

Knowing that it is largely a case of mind over muscle, how can we use this knowledge to supercharge our efforts in the pool? Here are two ideas:

Trick yourself into thinking that the finish line is closer than it is.

The reason that we are able to haul butt into the finish line is because our brain understands that the end is in sight. You can hack this idiosyncrasy in your day-to-day training by never looking beyond the next rep. I have talked previously about using the “One. More. Rep.” technique when doing a big set. You focus only on the upcoming rep, doing your best to forget the extent that remains to be done. When you consider how much is still to be done your brain begins hedging how much effort is going to be needed to complete the remaining reps. By believing that the finish line is closer than it actually is, it affects your perception of how fatigued you are.

Be present in the moment.

Elite swimmers have the ability to accept the struggle that comes with hard sets, and to be able to close them out strongly with seemingly superhuman efforts. Part of this is learned behavior, they have learned to be able to take on the hardship of training without becoming jaded or frustrated.

UC San Diego’s Dr. Martin Paulus, in research done on this specific topic, found that the same brain signals that allowed elite adventure racers to stay calm and focused during periods of max exertion were replicated through an 8-week mindfulness program done with a group of Navy Seal recruits, showing that this calmness and poise under duress can be learned and developed.

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  1. mcgillrocks says:

    This effect is so real.

    I once did 10×100 “animal kick” (100% sprint). I started out ok (having actually done a 13 mile bike the day before I was a little pooped) but by the 3rd 100 i was nearly 6 seconds slower than number 1. I kept trying to keep up the effort, focusing on beating the guy next to me each time and making every 25 of every 100 fast, but my times kept creeping up until on #9 i was 11 seconds slower than when i started.

    Meanwhile, in the lane next to me, the guy who I had been racing had been past by someone who was much faster. I did not want to lose. As I did the last 100 I kept with the new, faster person, turning maybe just a body length behind him at 75. I felt good…my legs, which had seemed so tight, tired and beaten were no longer ineffectively flailing. It was like my feet could now grip the water better. On the last 25 I wanted to win. I now wanted it so much, and my legs responded, seeming to be able to go faster and faster. Of course fatigue was setting in, but my tempo still managed to go up. Slowly I passed the guy next to me, and I felt as though by sheer force of will I was making my legs push me by him.

    When I touched I realized I had done my second fastest of the entire set, a full 10 seconds faster than number 9. I swore to coach I wasn’t deliberately saving up, but to no avail.

  2. Chooch says:

    There was an interesting series of radio articles on the NPR Radio Lab program today. The stories addressed testing the limits of human endurance.

    Listen here:

    • Like a Bunch of Chooches says:

      My college coach used the word chooch as a noun and a verb when we weren’t meeting her expectations. “Quit choochin’ around.” Any chance you heard it from the same place?

  3. Carl says:

    Interesting. Thanks

  4. Bob Saget says:

    Whilst this article is good, this is called the “second wind” effect. It’s in the Swim Fast series of books.

    I think it’s about belief. We used to do 10×200 IM/RIM set very often. I wasn’t very good at it, and and the top lane (at the time) used to go off 3:00 and I could barely manage 3:30. Our sessions used to be short and it took them less than 30 mins and I never actually got to finish the set, I always got stopped mid way during rep 7 because we had to swim down (poor time management).

    One day, once we had a longer session, I got to finish rep 7. When I realised I only had “one pair” left I had this unbelievable sensation of upcoming accomplishment and absolutely caned the last IM/RIM pair. I remember pushing off the wall to start rep 8 with a feeling like when you get a massive PB in a race — overwhelming joy. I caned it, but never took a hard stroke those last two but went so fast. There’s probably no physical reason to it and it’s not like I was talking myself down or not thinking about what I was doing either — just sometimes it happens. Similarly I did a set of 5×200 free off 3:00 which I’d never done before either. I’d never repped them off 3:00, but on #5 I went 2:30. Figure that out. Sometimes it’s just pure joy and enjoyment of accomplishment that gets you through those last few.

  5. Swimmer says:

    Com’n guys. I knew what this article would be like as soon as I saw the headline. I am a doctor and can tell you without a doubt that this has nothing to do with saving up or being mentally tough. If you can sprint at the end of a set, the only conclusion that can be made is that the set did not activate ‘sprint’ or fast-twitch muscle fibers. If you do a 2,000 yard set and hold a pace thats anywhere from 60-90% of your max then you are not activating your fast-twitch muscle fibers and you are only working your slow-twitch fibers. In an instance like this you will have almost full energy remaining in fast-twitch muscle fibers in order to go fast.

    This is why you see big teams do a time-trial at the end of a 2.5 hr practice and have swimmers post amazing times that somehow happen to be faster than some of their actual meet times. Because the set and practice in question did not activate fast-twitch muscle fibers and in the end that is what you need to sprint.

  6. Swimmer says:

    There are so many research articles out there that actually pertain to this topic. How is it that not a single article is cited? This is not some magical concept. its called exercise science and it is extremely well researched.

  7. Derek Mead says:

    I agree that an article like this should cite some scientific research and have physiological explanations outside the “your mind quits earlier than your body will…” quote. I chalk it up to feeling excited and mentally ready to finish, also competition when you’re racing teammates.

    In regards to not using fast twitch muscle fibers/sprinting, that isn’t exactly accurate. Lots of research shows that while there are different types of muscle fibers (slow twitch, fast twitch type A, type X or B) all systems are used simultaneously while exercising. Think of it as different fuel tanks, while one is the primary source, all tanks are dripping fuel and will be emptied regardless of going fast or slow.

    Research isn’t conclusive on this, so no one can say definitively “that was a slow twitch set and sprinting at the end is easy because you’re fast twitch muscle fibers have been resting…”. We just don’t know for 100%, but the research suggests the opposite of SWIMMER’s opinion.

    This would be like saying you could go and lift extremely heavy weights, which utilize fast twitch fibers, then do long and slow distance running and feel fresh…since the slow twitch fibers weren’t used during lifting.

    It’s thought that based on training, you can “encourage” fibers to produce a certain way (but basically, slow twitch fibers are slow twitch, fast twitch type X are fast twitch, fast twitch type A can take on characteristics of their training- fast or slow). All fibers will be used while working out, regardless if you’re going all out or long distances.

  8. Agree with Doctor says:

    I’m also going to have to agree with the Doc on this one.

    If you’ve done an aerobic set for the last hour you are going to be able to get into a glycolytic effort. It is the same thing as seeing a 1500 swimmer pick up their last 75-50 meters.

    Of course you are telling yourself to do this even though you would be tired. But, your mind is not over ruling physiology…It is about swimming with the correct energy distribution in mind and this would allow for a “finish”.

  9. That Hombre says:

    You talk like saving up to the end of a set sound like a bad thing!

  10. Four Fury says:

    What does this “sprint mode” feel like for you? (I’m an age grouper.)
    Two things trigger it for me:
    A. Seeing someone fast flipping right on my tail (RIGHT on my tail).
    B. Someone fast, such as that amazingly fast 14-year-old I’ve known for 4 years, in front of me in the same lane.
    It feels, for me, like I only know how to GO.I tend to breathe every 4 strokes when I do it, so I call it Four Fury. My eyes will roll back, so I can only see a sliver of pool, big enough for my subconscious to gauge when to flip based on the black line. I’m not a freestyler but I can only do this in free. It’s amazing, especially when you stop doing it and see target person is a pool behind you…not that you ever saw you passed them, of course. I can’t see consciously when doing this; I assume there is some vision because I am able to turn when I need to, without thinking about it. I usually can only hold it for a 25 or 50, but I’m going so fast that that’s often enough to pass my “victim” by a huge amount. To put this in context, I once pulled a 50 split (not the first one, I always need at least a 50 to accelerate before Four Fury kicks in) in 27 flat in practice. Coach timed it. You know what my time is in 50 free, in the meet?
    It’s 29.
    Also, this is interesting because I can’t choose when Fury kicks in…when it does, it does. Weird.
    What’s it like for you?

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About Olivier Poirier-Leroy

Olivier Poirier-Leroy has been involved in competitive swimming for most of his life. Starting off at the age of 6 he was thrown in the water at the local pool for swim lessons and since then has never wanted to get out. A nationally top ranked age grouper as both a …

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