FEATURES,  View from the Water

Can you do it all in swimming?

Image: if racing in the pool tempts you (especially during the colder months) then give it a go.

Well, that was a shock to the system.

Last Saturday I took part in a masters swimming gala where I did 50m, 100m and 200m front crawl and 100m and 200m individual medley, plus 50m front crawl and 50m breaststroke in relays. I didn’t expect to set any records but nor was I anticipating struggling so much on such short swims and swimming so slowly.

This summer (as most summers over the past few years), I’ve trained for and raced in open water events ranging from a mile to 21km. Several of those have featured sprint finishes, and I try to do one sprint training session each week, but it’s not the same as the all-out power you need for a pool race.

It’s hard to believe, after you’ve slogged your way through a marathon distance swim, how much your arms can hurt in the last 10m of a 50m sprint. It’s also horrifying (at least in my case) how your arms whirl frantically but almost uselessly in the quest for speed.

Coaches will tell you (at least, they’ve told me) that your training needs to be specific to the event you’re planning to do, and you can’t be both a sprinter and a long-distance swimmer.

At the elite level in the pool, you see this, even within the narrow band of distances contested. Adam Peaty is totally dominant over 50m and 100m breaststroke, but his focus is so intense on lowering the 100m world record, that he doesn’t do the 200m. Michael Phelps was perhaps the most versatile pool swimmer ever, but he always stuck to his favourite events. I never saw him race a 50m freestyle sprint for example, and nor could I find a time for him at that event with a quick internet search.

You do see some cross-over between pool and open water. David Davis and Oussama Mellouli have Olympic medals for 1500m in the pool and 10km in open water. This makes more sense, because both of these are endurance events. At the elite level in open water, the swimmers often complete the bulk of the course in a pack, pacing and drafting off each other, before a final sprint, so it makes sense that a fast pool swimmer could do well. But I’ve never seen a sprinter moving into elite open water racing or an open water swimmer becoming a sprint specialist.

What does that mean for the rest of us? Is it foolish to try to race 50m sprints in the pool and then do long distance swims in open water?

Not at all. The only foolish thing (and I’m guilty of this) is expecting to perform at your best, in every event, every time you do them, regardless of whether or not you’ve trained for them. A far more sensible approach is to quit worrying about the result and focus on having fun – and yes, it is fun (sort of) to make your arms burn on a 50m or 100m sprint.

And to prove I’m not the only one, I spotted Emma France at the same event. Emma runs the Channel training programme at Dover Beach, has three Channel solos, a round-Jersey and Jersey to France to her name. She’s an amazing swimmer, but butterfly sprints are not her thing. Yet there she was, lining up for the 100m butterfly and grinning like she’d won the lottery after she’d finished.

In the end, swimming is swimming. As long as you’re not trying to set world records, feel free to experiment with all the different opportunities out there. You won’t win at everything but you’ll enjoy it. I promise.

Stay up to date with The Dip, our free weekly outdoor swimming newsletter.

I created Outdoor Swimmer in 2011 (initially as H2Open Magazine) as an outlet for my passion for swimming outdoors. I've been a swimmer and outdoor swimmer for as long as I remember. Swimming has made a huge difference to my life and I want to share its joys and benefits with as many people as possible. I am also the author of Swim Wild & Free: A Practical Guide to Swimming Outdoors 365 a Year and I provide one-to-one support to swimmers through Swim Mentoring.