Ranking The Top Five Most Painful Races In Swimming

Courtesy: Corey He

Swimming is a fun sport. At the same time, it can also be a dreadfully painful sport. We all know that feeling when you step up on the blocks, unshaved and untapered at a random mid-season invitational meet, knowing that the pain you’re about to experience over the next few minutes will make you question why you’re a competitive swimmer.

And yet we race. Because we love swimming and we love racing.

Today, I’m breaking down the top five most painful races that this sport has to offer. Each of the races I’m highlighting will receive a rating on a scale of 0 to 100 — zero being no pain, 100 being pain that will render you unconscious (spoiler: none of the featured events will have a score below an 85). Let’s dive right into it.

I. The 100 Freestyle

You read that right. A race that spans four laps of the pool — or just two laps in an Olympic-sized pool — has made its way onto this list. Some of you might think I’m crazy, but I’m sure I have all the sprinters in the world backing me on this one.

Let’s start with short course. There’s a reason why swimmers can afford to “no-breath” a 50 freestyle but have to breathe every stroke in a 100 freestyle. While the 50 is often referred to as the “splash-and-dash,” I like to refer to the 100 as the “splash-and-crash” — by the time you push off the last wall, your legs, along with every muscle fiber in your body, will be screaming in pain (and maybe you will be screaming underwater as well).

In long course, it doesn’t get much better. You dive off the block, sprint 50 meters, flip at the other end, and think, “Wow, I’m already halfway through!” Then the pain hits like a brick wall. A biologist would tell you that anaerobic respiration will only last so long — that’s another way of saying how the first person to the 50-meter mark is often not the first person to the 100-meter mark. A lot can change very quickly in this race — a testament to how painful this race truly is.

At least the race is over relatively quickly — but those last few meters might be the worst pain you will ever endure in your entire life. The cherry on top? The NCAA schedule features the 100 freestyle and the 400 freestyle relay in the same session — and on the very last day of most major meets. Double trouble.

Pain Scale: 88. (and if you race it twice in the same session? 93.)

II. The Mile

This one requires little to no explanation. It’s a long, painful race — and the worst part is that this race gives you ample time to contemplate your life decisions: what led you here to racing 66 laps on a day you could be relaxing on a beach somewhere? Again, no explanation needed here.

Pain Scale: 98.

III. The 200 Breaststroke

I think that some of you may not have expected this event to make it onto this list. Well, if you think the 200 breaststroke doesn’t deserve to be here, then I have a harsh reality to break to you: you’re not swimming it correctly.

Breaststroke is both the most inefficient and most technically demanding stroke in swimming. This lethal combination makes it extraordinarily challenging to maintain stroke mechanics and pacing across the entire race. Plus, don’t forget about the pullouts in short course: your lungs will be screaming for oxygen by the time you come off the last wall.

The long course version of this race is even more daunting: if you start spinning your wheels, you will find yourself in a gut-wrenching no-man’s-land in no time. The 50-meter pool will suddenly feel like the Atlantic Ocean. Trust me, I’ve been there, and this is not a situation you want to find yourself in.

Pain Scale: 91.

IV. The 400 IM

This race is particularly tricky: it’s essentially a 100 of each stroke, which means you more or less have to sprint every 100. But if you step on the gas too aggressively, you’ll end up regretting it. Because of this, I consider the 400 IM to be an extended sprint and not a distance event — and it is this very reality that makes the 400 IM notoriously painful.

If you’re at that point in your swimming career where your coach still signs you up for your events, I’m sure the last thing you want to see is your name on the heat sheets of the 400 IM (better yet, your coach will not let you even think of scratching). This alone speaks for itself.

Pain Scale: 96.

V. The 200 Freestyle

There’s only one spot left on this list, and thus I had a monumental decision to make: would I give this spot to the 200 freestyle or the 200 butterfly?

For better or for worse, I’ve gone with the 200 freestyle, a potentially hot-take. But I’m sure I’ll have at least half of the swimming world agreeing with me on this one. Allow me to explain.

The 200 freestyle, just like the 400 IM, is an event where you can’t exactly take your foot off the gas at any point — but you can’t overswim any part of the race either. You’re essentially stuck in an extremely uncomfortable gray area that requires you to maintain your top-end speed for an extended period of time. Anyone who’s done any type of high-intensity aerobic work knows just how painful that can be.

The 200 freestyle is also the distance where sprinters and mid-distance swimmers — often utilizing very different racing strategies — clash for the ultimate face-off. The sprinters often take the race out hard and hang on for dear life; the mid-distance swimmers often put on the pressure during the back half of the race.

In short, unless you’re magically built to swim the 200 freestyle, you’ll often find that the race is either too short or too long for your comfort zone. Either way, this is a recipe for pain.

Pain Scale: 93.

Final Thoughts

In all fairness, if every race is swum to your full potential, the pain scale should always be a solid 100 (except for the sprint 50s). But what fun is there in giving each race the same score on the pain scale?

Let me know in the comments if you feel that I unrightfully excluded a particular race from this article. Hopefully, this article doesn’t spark too much debate within the swimming community.


Corey is a current junior at the University of Pennsylvania, studying biology and healthcare management on a pre-medicine track. Originally from New Jersey, he first jumped into the water when he was 4 years old and swam competitively all the way through high school. Prior to college, he swam for Fanwood-Scotch Plains YMCA. He hopes to pursue a career in sports medicine.

Leave a Reply

Notify of

oldest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
1 month ago

Former back/breastroker here. Also did the 400 IM a disgusting amount. Having swam the 200 back and breast probably the same number of times, breastroke takes it by a slight (but still significant) amount. The last pullout off the wall feels like you can’t breathe and every stroke in the last 50 yards feels like you’re moving horizontally. I would be crawling out of the pool. Was never a good freestyler so can’t speak for the mile but definitely deserves to be up here. But yeah 400 IM takes it overall. It’s fully a 400 sprint, and each turn into a different stroke feels like a punch to the gut. The feeling of turning back to breast and feeling dead… Read more »

I miss the ISL (go dawgs)
1 month ago


1 month ago

This article completely disregards body weight distribution between men and women and what might make certain races more difficult between the two.

1 month ago

This is 200 fly erasure

1 month ago

The 200Fly slander in this article is real.

Greg P
1 month ago

“The long course version of this race is even more daunting: if you start spinning your wheels, you will find yourself in a gut-wrenching no-man’s-land in no time. The 50-meter pool will suddenly feel like the Atlantic Ocean. Trust me, I’ve been there, and this is not a situation you want to find yourself in.”

This reminds me of Rebecca Soni in the 200 breaststroke final at 2009 World Championship.

Literally the most painful last 10 meter of swimming race I’ve ever watched.

1 month ago

This is wild.

The debate of most painful depends on SC or LC.

Short course:
1 400 IM
2 Mile
3 200 fly
4 500 free
5 100 breast (I know that’s a hot take, but for some unexplainable reason, the 1 breast SC is absolute hell)

Long Course:
200 fly
400 IM
200 back (This event in LC just absolutely destroys the legs and it’s so painful)
200/400 free

1 month ago

I think 400 free is the new 200 free. It is basically 4 times 100 sprint.

Obviously everybody’s opinion is different based on their experience so here is mine:

  1. 400 IM
  2. 200 fly
  3. 1500 free
  4. stroke 200s
  5. 400 free

While the sprints are hard, I am not sure if they are more painful than the other ones. If nothing else, the pain is over quickly.