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.

About YourSwimBook

YourSwimBook is a log book and goal setting guide designed specifically for competitive swimmers. It includes a ten month log book, comprehensive goal setting section, monthly evaluations to be filled out with your coach, and more. Learn 8 more reasons why this tool kicks butt.

NEW: We now have motivational swimming posters. Five of ’em, actually.

Join the YourSwimBook weekly newsletter group and get motivational tips and more straight to your inbox. Sign up for free here.


Leave a Reply

10 Comment threads
2 Thread replies
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
11 Comment authors
newest oldest most voted

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… Read more »


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

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?

Interesting. Thanks

About Olivier Poirier-Leroy

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 …

Read More »

Don't want to miss anything?

Subscribe to our newsletter and receive our latest updates!