Swim Mom: The 5 Toughest Races in Swimming

by SwimSwam Contributors 78

September 22nd, 2019 Lifestyle, Swim Mom

Courtesy: Donna Hale

Lately I have been seeing a lot of articles about what events in swimming at the toughest to swim. As a swim mom of nearly two decades, here are my rankings which I know will create some debate.  I have watched thousands of races and swimmers.  So here goes.

1. 400 IM.  This is the event of an all around tough athlete. It requires mental toughness, physical power, and a certain amount of crazy.  Ask anyone who has swam and finaled in the 400 IM. It takes courage and skill to do it once. Competing in it twice in one day is a really fun kind of torture  that an athlete with a swimmer’s heart understands.  A 400 IM’er is the total package.

2. 200 Fly.  The 200 fly is mental toughness,  majestic beauty, and a fair amount of pure power all rolled into one event. Go out too fast and you die. Take it too slow, and you cannot come back. But it is pure joy to watch someone do it right. Again to do it twice when you final is the ultimate test of endurance. Think Michael Phelps! 200 fly is a personal favorite.

3. 1650 Free.  It requires training designed for distance which too many programs do not offer at club level.   If you do the mile you are the one begging teammates to please stay around and count. Many spectators who don’t have an athlete in this race use this event to run to the snack bar. This event requires practice and pacing.  If your splits are off then you can add a minute or even two to your best time. Needless to say, it takes brains, bravery and a bold can-do attitude.

4. 200 Free/500 free.  I have these events as a tie. They fall in that nowhere land between sprint and distance. Sprint these all out like a 50 and you’ll die.  Hold back too much and you will feel like crying when you hear the bell and then have to see the clock. Athletes who can master this event are smart and talented.

5.  200 back.  Doing anything on your back for 200 yards or meters is tough, but few things are harder than swimming on your back this far. Your flipturns must be a thing of accuracy and beauty. Get it wrong and you could hit your head, miss the wall, or lose the benefit of powering off the wall.   The bonus is you get to breath a lot.

Honorable Mention:  50 free. Sprinters love the 50 free.  This is the event of “make no mistakes or else.”   The 50 free is swimming in the fast lane. It is an unleashing of the beast in the swimmer.  Don’t blink or you’ll miss it. Most of the time swimmers either love it or hate it.

What do you think are the toughest events in swimming?

Donna Hale has been swim mom for more than 17 years. Her daughter swims for The University of Lynchburg Hornets in NCAA.

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Imagine not even listing the 200 Brst, which may be the 2nd most demanding event physically behind the 400 IM.


They call breast the resting stroke for a reason. But I do agree that this event is an event of pure talent in this arena No way is it harder then 200 fly. Sorry


literally never heard the term resting stroke before. is this some kind of masters swimming thing?

Brandon Walsh

If you resting you ain’t racing


Definitely NOT a masters thing… I’ve NEVER heard breaststroke called the “resting stroke”. The 200 is grueling. EIGHT pullouts, for Pete’s sake…

Danush suresh

Toughest is 200 breaststroke, more technique sensitive n power


I believe it’s called the „resting“ stroke because it’s the only stroke you can swim with your head out of the water and for a long time not in a race but just to leisurely swim. That’s why it is the first stroke some schwimm schools teach and old ladies love it because their hair can stay dry.
I agree with the article though those are the hardest strokes and not always fun to watch as a swim parent.


Not being a breaststroker, I never the less thing that it is a difficult stroke to master as it seems to be a lot of pulling and kicking going back-and-forth and it’s can be very taxing


No…. “they” don’t…. it’s the breaststroke or short-axis stroke or the undulating stroke. Don’t make “resting stroke” a thing please


There is no such thing as a resting stroke. When a swimmer perfects the technique of a stroke and swims it correctly, it will be tough when you race. This leads to being a great IMer.

2 Cents

There are some strokes you CAN rest while doing though. Think about this… when you did a cool down, what stroke did you do? Probably free, or maybe back. No one does fly or breast for a cool down.


I was relatively solid at both, sub 2:10 And sub 2:20 LCM.

The 200 brst is worse. That’s why the drop off in elite fields is so much more.

Breaststroke is only a ‘resting stroke’ if you are bad at it. Calling it such is no less stupid than me calling backstroke a resting stroke because I can breathe every stroke.

The 200 brst takes longer, the athletes deal with more resistance, and the drop off being so much greater on the back half suggests higher levels of fatigue.

Stacey Swimmer

Resting stroke???? You’ve got to be joking….and the 200, again is this a joke?


“They” obviously don’t swim at a competitive level.

Sir Swimsalot

I’ll argue the 200 BK is the hardest of the 200’s. While 200 fly and breast are grueling events in its own right, those who excel at it can get into a rhythm. I’ve swum them all and backstroke was always more painful. The demand on your legs is criminal because you have to keep a consistent kick to keep your stroke connected. You know that feeling when your feet fall asleep and you get that static? My legs feel like that but combined with pain.


I’ve seen some 6:00 200breast…. I’ve never seen a 6:00 200fly outside of masters

Sir Swimsalot

I’d argue the 200 BK is the hardest. All the 200’s are grueling, but with fly especially you can kinda get into a rhythm. With backstroke your legs just get destroyed. When I swim it it’s like my legs get painful static by the last 75 of the race and I can’t walk after.

Jay Ryan

The 200 Breast can hurt if you are not a breaststroker. As a breaststroker, I can tell you that it does not hurt breaststrokers. Breaststrokers never really dread it.

EVERYONE dreads the 400 IM! Even the very best 400 IMers dread that beast. It is the only event that induces swimmers to state (immediately after winning the Olympics and/or setting a world record), “That was my last competitive 400IM…ever!” You gotta love that. The 200 Fly hurts almost everyone, including a lot of butterfliers, but it does not hurt ALL of them.

m d e

200 BRST doesn’t hurt breaststokers?

How come there is so little crossover between the best at 100 and 200 currently?

How come Soni did this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gdwtZlpk0Rk

How come peaty regularly goes over 2:10 at international competition?

I’d go as far as to say you have it backwards, the better you get at breaststroke the more it hurts.


::::raises hand:::: Breaststroker who dreads the 200 breast, right here! And I’m actually better at the 200 than the 100…. There’s no way around it. A 200 breast, done properly, hurts. There have been plenty of times I’ve gotten out of the 200 and not been able to feel my legs…..


it should hurt, especially if you are a breaststroker, because you should be pushing it harder. The most painful race I’ve ever had was a 2 breast at a final the last day of a 4 day meet.

Jason Thurston

Breast stroke position allows a more complete inhale/exhale so it has that advantage. But really the difficulty is dependent on each individuals body type and technique. Some can do the butterfly for a mile, as easily as a freestyle. Others struggle with a 100 fly even with good technique, it’s dependent on their body type/buoyancy/flexibility. IM’s are tough but they also have the advantage of changing strokes so that one can use a different/fresher set of muscle groups.


Imagine listing the 50 free as honorable mention over the 200 breast


How many people do you know that can truly be stars at 50 free! I mean the best of the best.


Agree. So many flaws. Here’s the real Top 5:
1.) 25 Free. Ever go to the first summer swim league meet of the season? This event has the highest rate of false starts, goggle losses, deck scratches due to meltdowns, and spontaneous quitting of the sport entirely.
2.) 250 Free. Ask Brooke Forde.
3.) 400 Mixed Medley Relay. Only time a boy might legitimately lose to a girl in the pool, head to head. Or that a girl will unfairly have to deal with the tidal waves of a dude.
4.) 300 Trudgen Crawl. Those of us old enough to remember the 1896 Athens games can attest to this.
5.) (insert #) Fly. Because the fly sucks. And I hate it.

Ice Age Swimmer

Best comment! Had forgotten the term “trudgen crawl”!


you have the best username of all time

Big Kicker

Not to discredit these opinions completely, but maybe we should try getting rankings like these from people who have actually swam these races? I’m not sure that having just “watched thousands of races” gives you an accurate perspective


I should have clarified that I have talked to hundreds if not thousands of swimmers. Most will agree with the first three without debate.I think a number of coaches would agree on the 200/500. Getting it right is a mental task.

VA Steve

Mainly agree. I do think in LCM the 200 fly > 400 IM (at least if my two swimmers are voting).


200butterfly is WAY worse than 400im

Big Kicker

To your credit, I would definitely agree with the first three, and arguably the rest.

However, not really my point. I can talk to an infinite number of professional football players without having any clue how it really feels to get rammed by a 250lb linebacker. Crude analogy but you see my point.

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