Mike's Mailbag: The Value of the Distance Experience

Mike's Mailbag: The Value of the Distance Experience

By Mike Gustafson//Contributor  | Monday, February 6, 2017

Every Monday, I answer questions from swimmers around the country. If you have a question, please email me at swimmingstories@gmail.com

Hi Mike,

My team annually attends a distance meet this time of year. All of my teammates go, but the meet is always disappointing for me because I'm a sprinter. I feel like my distance times should be closer to my teammates' times, so I always feel disappointed. Should I try to improve my distance times or should I just stay true to myself?

Confused Sprinter


Hey Confused Sprinter,

The problem isn’t with your upcoming distance meet — that part is simply one aspect of competitive swimming you can’t escape. Distance is part of the swimming experience, at least until you get old enough where you can truly specialize. Distance events is a necessary component of any younger competitive swimmer’s experience, regardless if you’re a distance swimmer or not. Swimming the 500 or the 1650 is part of maturing as a swimmer (at least until you get to your senior year of high school or college, when you can begin to specialize.) If swim events are a smorgasbord of different food options, the 500 and 1650 are like the vegetables: They may not be enjoyable, but you’re not a complete swimmer until you do them. 

The problem is with your question. Yes, right now, you may be a sprinter. Right now, you may not be able to compete in distance events like your teammates. Right now, you may not be able to keep up with them. Right now, you may not be able to come within five seconds of them. 

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Because you never know when that could change. And part of being a swimmer is putting it all on the line, no matter what event you compete in. 

When I was a swimmer, growing up, I was a sprint breaststroker. By the time I graduated college, I was a 400 IMer. The transition was a slow and steady one. In high school, I rarely did the 400 IM. My senior year in college, I was regularly training with a few members of the distance team, sometimes doing 10x400 IMs as a main set. It wasn’t an instant decision. It happened slowly and surely, and it only happened because I realized that I could compete in 400 IMs. That only happened through effort, and I don’t regret one single moment of it. 

You may be a sprinter now, but you never know what can happen down the road. So don’t write off distance events, distance practices, or distance sets. You never know how you may grow, or how your body or mind might change. Maybe in a few years, you’ll love distance. Maybe you’ll get better at distance. You just don’t know.

Instead, rise to the challenge. Consider it to be a fun adventure: So what if your teammates are faster? Worry about yourself. Fret about your own times. Try to beat your own personal best. That’s the beauty of swimming: The only foe who can keep you from success is the clock. 

Confused Sprinter, don’t worry about your distance-swimming cohorts. Don’t worry if they beat you. Don’t worry if they zoom so far ahead during the race that you can’t see them anymore. None of that matters. The only thing that matters is that you rise to your own personal challenge. 

When I was your age, I also hated the 500 freestyle and 1650 freestyles. I couldn’t stand that slow, ongoing burn. I’d probably rather be training nonstop butterfly sets than compete in a 1650. 

But if you consider this distance meet part of your training — both physical and mental — then maybe you’ll see it differently. Rather than focusing on what you seemingly can’t do (keep up with your distance teammates) you need to focus on what you can do (enter the meet with a positive attitude and try your best). After years of this kind of mentality, you’ll be more mentally tough. You’ll be more mentally positive. But you have to practice this kind of mental fortitude. It doesn’t just come naturally. Like anything else, it takes practice.

And this will help your sprinting, too. If the difference between winning and losing a sprint race is .01, that difference comes down to a mental edge. Training your mind to try as hard you can, no matter what event, no matter what meet, no matter who is next to you and racing you, will slowly and over time harden your mental edge. Championships — especially in sprint events — are not won or lost on the day of the meet. They are won or lost years earlier, during those painful Friday night distance events, when that swimmer decides to give up or keep going. Compound that decision over and over and over again, and years later, you have yourself a champion, or otherwise.

Worry about your own distance times. Try to beat what you did last year. Consider it part of training. And if your distance-training teammates beat you?

Challenge them to a 50. 

I hope this helps. 

Follow Mike on Twitter @MicGustafson. 


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