Good distance swimmers make long, challenging swims look easy. How do they swim so fast without getting tired? 

It comes down to years of hard work, consistency and good technique. To help you improve your own distance swimming, we’re breaking down the key attributes that made Katie Ledecky, Summer McIntosh and Ariarne Titmus break the world record in the 400-meter freestyle.

Meet the Best 400 Freestylers in the World

If you want to improve, you need to learn from the best! And by many measurements, Katie Ledecky is the distance queen! She has seven Olympic gold medals and 19 World Championship gold medals, which is the most in history for a female swimmer.

But Katie’s reign might be coming to an end. There are a few young swimmers who have stepped up to challenge her in recent years: Ariarne Titmus of Australia and Summer McIntosh of Canada. 

All three swimmers have held the world record in the 400m freestyle at some point (Summer McIntosh is the current champ). 

Breaking Down the 400m Freestyle

Now let’s compare each swimmer’s splits in their world record-breaking 400-meter freestyle swims. At the time of this article’s publication, Summer McIntosh holds the world record. 

Related: 5 Ways to Pace for Distance Swims

Katie is out the slowest in the first 100, and remains in third place through the second and third 100s. Summer McIntosh out splits her competitors for the first 300, but Katie powers through to the finish, crushing Ariarne and Summer with a 58.84 for her final 100. 

Only a fraction of a second separates these three swimmers, but that’s all you need to break the world record!

The Best Distance Swimming Technique

So what does it take to break the world record in the 400m freestyle? What can you learn from these incredible, fast swims? It comes down to four things (listed in order of importance): 

1. Body Position

Always start with body position. Katie, Ariarne and Summer all swim with their bodies high in the water, which reduces drag and allows them to swim faster. 

They look down toward the bottom of the pool, and don’t lift their heads to breathe, which could cause their technique to fall apart. 

2. Pull (EVF)

All three swimmers have a great Early Vertical Forearm pull, which is key to improving propulsion and efficiency. 

To initiate EVF in your stroke, think about keeping your hand, wrist and forearm in line as you pull. Initiate your pull by keeping your elbow high and pointing your fingers down before pulling back. 

The faster your tempo, the straighter your arm will get. In longer swims, you have an opportunity to really leverage EVF to take pressure off of your shoulders and maximize the power of every pull.

3. Rhythm & Breathing

In distance swimming, it’s important to create a rhythm in your stroke that can help you hold your race pace for extended periods. Your breathing pattern can help! Katie and Summer both swim with a “gallop” stroke, and breathe every two strokes, while Ariarne has a more symmetrical stroke, breathing every two or four strokes. 

Related: 5 Swim Drills to Immediately Improve Your Breathing

Regardless of how you swim, find a pattern that works for you and stick with it. Don’t try to hold your breath for long periods or breathe as little as possible. That’s what 50 freestylers do! Limiting your oxygen intake for a longer swim will result in poor performance.

And yes, it’s ok to breathe to just one side!

4. Not Kicking

In distance swimming, you don’t need that powerful, motorboat kick like you do when you sprint. Sure, you might turn it on in the final 50 meters to push through to the finish, but don’t worry about maintaining a fast kick for an entire 400 (or longer). 

Kicking uses some of the biggest muscles in your body, which can drain your energy reserves if you go too hard too soon.

Instead, think about using your kick as a way to help drive your rotation and keep your hips in position. 

How to Train for the 400 Free

Once your technique is on point, it’s time to start training. Hard. 

In general, if you want to swim fast for a long time, you need to train for the 400 IM. Yep, that’s right. Even if you want to race the 400 free, IM training (or IMX Training, in this case) is your friend! 

When you train all four strokes consistently, you’ll refine your feel of the water and improve your endurance for almost any race, but especially distance swims. 

IMX training can be broken into 3 parts:

  1. Endurance: You need to build aerobic capacity to complete a 400 IM, an open water race, etc. 
  2. Speed: To be good at the 400 IM, you need to be good at the 100 or 200 of each stroke. Train your body to push it!
  3. Anaerobic Capacity: In a 400, you’re going to reach your limits. Training your anaerobic capacity with sprints will help you power through to the finish.

It’s also important to consider your training volume. To train for the 400, Katie, Summer and Ariarne are swimming 50,000-70,000 meters per week. We aren’t saying that you have to swim that much, but make sure you’re putting in enough distance during training to help you get the results you want on race day. Try the IMX Pro Challenge Training Plan in the MySwimPro app for a personalized plan designed for 400 IMers and distance swimmers!

Try the Endurance Challenge Test Set: 5 x 100 Freestyle

To measure your progress along the way, we recommend doing test sets every month, or every quarter. Elite swimmers like Katie, Summer and Ariarne likely do test sets regularly. They might do a 3,000 for time, or challenge themselves with 100, 200 or 400 repeats. 

It’s important to note that races are also a great way to test yourself, but most of us aren’t racing very often. If that’s you, check out Test Sets in the MySwimPro app.

In the app, you’ll see a customized Endurance Challenge I Test Set that’s based on your swimming distance preferences, speed and stroke selections. 

Your goal is to complete all five 100s within the goal time that the app sets for you, based on your current speed. This set will challenge your endurance and ability to maintain a consistent pace over time, which is essential for a race like the 400 free.

Below you’ll see a comparison of the Test Sets for a swimmer who wants to do 1000 yards total per workout, versus a swimmer who prefers to do 4,000 yards or more. The Test Set is the same, but the work before and after that main set differs to make sure each swimmer gets exactly what they need. 

As you get faster, MySwimPro Coach will adjust your intervals to ensure you’re always challenging yourself. Coach will let you know when it’s time to swim a Test Set, and will track all of your progress from each attempt to help you chart your progress. 

At the end of the day, if you want to swim like Katie Ledecky, Ariarne Titmus or Summer McIntosh, you have to commit to training hard for the long haul. Stick to your plan, show up to the pool every day and do your best. Share your tips for distance training in the comments below, and download the MySwimPro app to start your own personalized Training Plan!

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