Proper race strategy in the 400 IM

Pratt, Jasen

The 400 IM is an event in which too many athletes swim incorrectly. However, with a little proper guidance and with an emphasis on swimming a balanced race, many could excel in this event.

Outside of Bill Sweetenham, Dr. Akos Toth and Dr. Jeno Tihanyi, not much has been written about swimming the 400 individual medley. What we see today are too many athletes swimming the 400 IM as if it were four separate 100 meter events rather than looking at the 400 as a whole.

As we do in 200 meter stroke events, can we safely tell our athletes the proper splits to swim-say, a 4:29-or are the differences between individuals (i.e., the strengths and weaknesses between the four strokes) too great?

Ernie Maglischo said that the strategy for the 400 IM was to take the fly out two to three seconds over your 100 meter best time; the backstroke would follow at six to seven seconds over your best; the breaststroke eight to 10; and the finishing freestyle would be at six to seven seconds over your 100 meter best time. This is essentially correct, but I believe it can be more accurately stated by using percentages rather than “seconds over personal best.”

I am going to divide the clarification of strategy into two parts: strategy by percentage distribution, or how long to spend on each leg of the race; and potential in the event based on lifetime bests in the 100 meter events.

The data were collected at national and international events from around the world. The world records are those broken since 1980 (excluding all Chinese and East German swims). I have also included as much data on the best of the current medley swimmers as I have been able to find.

Strategy by Percentage Distribution

Nigel Kemp made a blueprint for splitting the 400 IM, which was based on the duration it took to swim each of the four strokes. Each leg of the medley was to be split based on a percentage of overall time. Bill Sweetenham of Australia has also published a similar method with slightly different values. I believe they, along with Maglischo, were all on the right path in determining how you should tell your swimmer to split the race. (See Table 1.)

What do these numbers in Table I mean in a practical sense? A 4:29 in the men’s medley will get you a second swim in any nation’s long course championships. We can use that time as a starting point to compare the different pacing models in Table 2.

You can see that all four formulas, despite only marginal differences in percentages (Table 1), produce decidedly different values when they are converted into time (Table 2).

I’ve examined a few hundred swims from world-class athletes all over the world. We should ask, are the numbers (percentages) sound? And more importantly, are they practical? Can we validate theory with practical swims?

Some of the athletes I have studied closely are the better medley swimmers competing today: Marcel Wouda of The Netherlands; Curtis Myden of Canada; Jani Sievinen of Finland; Matthew Dunn of Australia; Tom Dolan of the United States; Joanne Malar of Canada; Yana Klochkova of the Ukraine; and Kristine Quance of the United States.

At this point, I think the coach should be aware of two things: 1) although the numbers may not seem that different, a marginal difference of only 0.5% can translate into more than 1.2 seconds in a 400 IM race; and 2) there are countless examples of races swum at times very close to any of the four previously mentioned percent models.

Thus, it is quite easy to select from any database races that will fit very closely to any one of the four. However, from what I have seen, there are more races being swum in worldclass competition that are nearer the percentages I state than any other. I have been compiling numbers for the past 18 months, and even though the size of the database keeps getting bigget, the numbers are not changing appreciably.

Table 3 shows the percentages based on world record swims compared to world-class swims along with the numbers I advocate.

What do these numbers and splits tell us? Do athletes actually swim the event this way?

The current long course world record in the men’s 400 IM is 4:12.30, held by American Olympic champion Tom Dolan.

Table 4 shows the splits my formula advocates versus the actual world record splits for Dolan’s swim, along with the preceding three world records set by Tamas Daryni of Hungary.

It may be nothing more than a curious bit of trivia for coaches to file away and bring up later as motivation for an athlete, but it should be noted that of the 17 world records (again, not including Chinese or East German swimmers) over the last 20 years, only three have occurred with a freestyle split slower than that of the butterfly.

The problem with basing a swim in the 400 IM solely by the percent of time spent on one stroke or another is that this formula assumes that the swimmer is balanced through the four individual strokes. This is most often not the case, especially among younger medley swimmers.

An Athlete’s Potential Based on 100 Meter Bests

What I believe helps join the “paper theories” with practical swims are the methods used by Dr. Jeno Tihanyi, coach of former world record holder and Canadian Olympic double gold medalist, Alex Baumann; and Bill Sweetenham, coach of the Australian National Youth Squad.

Dr. Tihanyi would use a swimmer’s best event times for 100 meters to determine the potential of that given athlete in the 400 medley. His research determined that a world-class athlete, well-balanced in the four stroke disciplines, has the capacity to swim the 400 IM at 90% of the sum of his best 100 meter swims.

Sweetenham has also dealt with how age groupers (or immature medley swimmers) with obvious stroke imbalances could properly devise a race strategy. He suggested that you could determine their 400 medley capacity by adding 8%, a relatively small number compared to Tihanyi’s, to the sum of an athlete’s 100 meter best times in the individual strokes. The difference of 2% may not sound like a great deal, but it is at least 4.8 seconds in a 400 IM lasting only 4:00.00.

Does Tihanyi’s number (90%) or Sweetenham’s (92%) reflect world swimming today?

Table 5 shows the personal bests of Marcel Wouda as of June 1999; Joanne Malar and Curtis Myden as of August 1999; and Jani Sievinen as of December 1996.

Wouda has also split races, both short course and long course, at sums of 88.4% and 88.3%. Jani Sievinen of Finland, former world record holder in the short course 400 meter IM and current world record holder in the long course 200 meter IM, has also competed at 86.3% short course. Alex Baumann’s gold medal performance at the 1984 Olympics was at 89.7%.

It has been shown that 90% reflects the near limits of human performance at the senior international level, especially for males, but how do you know when an athlete is ready for such a performance?

Many of us, myself included, have probably already thought out some of our swimmer’s potential in the medley and can see a possible future for them. And if you have used Sweetenham’s method, you may be even more encouraged as he favors 92%-or only 8% above personal bests.

I believe before anyone gets too excited over their athlete’s theoretical potential, it would be best to see whether or not he or she can match swimming near 90% of their 100 meter best over 400 meters (on one stroke) as suggested by Sweetenham. Start with the freestyle, then calculate the four individual strokes. Can the swimmer match it?

Marcel Wouda swims his 400 freestyle at 85.3% (LC) and at 84.9% (SC); Australia’s Matthew Dunn has been 84.4% (LC); Canada’s Curtis Myden at 88.7% (LC); and his compatriot Joanne Malar at 90.4% (LC).

Ian Thorpe of Australia, current world record holder in the 200 and 400 meter free (LC), has done 400 meter freestyle races at 88.0%, 88.5% and 90.1% (SC), and at 88.4% again this summer when he broke the 200 and 400 freestyle world records (LC).

From what I have seen, I would agree with Tihanyi’s assessment of 90% as opposed to Sweetenham’s 92%. With rare exception do we see the world’s best any higher than 90% (see Table 5, Joanne Malar). However, it may be that Sweetenham’s numbers favor the younger age group athlete over the senior swimmer.

In that case, 92% may be valid since, developmentally, age groupers are physiologically less prepared for the shorter 100 meter races, due to their lower maximal blood lactate capabilities (Rowland 1996). Therefore, they would have 100 meter bests at less than full potential. Consequently, they may have an easier time achieving 8% than a senior athlete; it may be worthwhile for someone to take a closer look at this.

By the same token, a senior athlete who has come close to realizing full potential in the 100 meter events may also have more trouble attaining 90% than one who has not. Jani Sievinen is a good example.

In two separate swims, it took Sievinen efforts of only 84.8% (January 1996) and 86.3% (February 1992) to achieve two short course world records. This may also be due in part to the fact that Sievinen has also been trained to achieve the world’s fastest 200 IM times in both short course and long course.

Were Sievinen able to match his 86.3% effort from 1992 today, he would be swimming the 400 IM (SC) at 4:02.8, still almost two seconds ahead of Matthew Dunn’s 1999 world record. Were Sievinen able to reach full potential (90%) as an IMer, we may see him at an amazing 3:54.9!

How to use the Percent Distribution Model

One of the primary uses of this method is to use it as a pace moderator for your athletes. By that I mean, for example, many are capable of initiating a 400 IM at a much quicker pace than this strategy recommends (see Table 2). However, racing the 400 IM is not about displaying your strengths. Rather, it’s about hiding your weaknesses.

Of the 24 swimmers who swam in the finals at the 1999 U.S. summer national championships, 10 of them had an initial butterfly split quicker than one minute. Following my splitting strategy, I would assume that these athletes should be able to finish under 4:20.0, yet only one did-Robert Margalis. The question, then, is: “Are these athletes, by splitting under one minute in the fly, hiding a weakness, or .just displaying a strength?” Table 6 looks at Margalis’ swim.

In 1991, former world record holder and Olympic champion Tamas Daryni won both IMs at the World Championships as well as a bronze in the 200 meter butterfly. His time in the fly put him 10th on the all-time list for that event. Two years earlier at the 1989 European Championships, he won all three events.

In all of Damyi’s world record performances, he never split the butterfly in less than 59 seconds, including his last world record in 1991. Yet how many times do you see athletes at all levels beginning a race at 59 seconds or better? How many of them go 4:12? Only two men in history have ever been 4:12, and only one has ever repeated the feat. Seldom are the world’s best 400 IMers out to show their competitors their biggest strengths.

Tom Dolan set the current world record at the World Championships in 1994. That year, he was also world– ranked in the 400 free (I th), 800 free Ord), 1500 free (12th) and the 200 back (132nd). How often does Dolan attempt to reserve everything for the last 100 meters, trying to win on his freestyle alone? He swims a very balanced race.

During 1996-one of the most important seasons of his careerDolan won the 400 IM at the Olympics and was ranked second in the world in the 400 free and 17th in the 200 back. Yet at the Olympics, he was tied with Eric Namesnik at the 200, splitting a conservative 1:04.5 (especially for a man who is the 13th fastest all-time in the 200 back). By doing so, he maintained balance inside the 400.

In 1992, Hungary’s Kristina Egerszegi won Olympic gold in the 400 IM. She also won the 100 and 200 back. That year, she was ranked No. 1 in the world in all three events. She was also world-ranked in the 200 fly (16th) and the 200 breast (128th). Yet, she was only even with the early leader at 200 meters.

What I am trying to emphasize is that, despite these athletes’ obvious strengths, they swim balanced racesnot necessarily optimizing strengths, but conserving energy to balance the race and hide their weakness.


The point I would like to stress is that none of these other percentage strategies are necessarily incorrect-just less accurate in today’s competitive world. Their numbers may be a reflection of the era from which they gathered their data. World records in the days gone by were not swum with nearly the same amount of balance as today.

It would be wrong for anyone to say that any one way is absolutely correct for every athlete. There are examples from all over the world of successful world-class swims being done in a multitude of ways.

There is a category of swimmer today who swims to win. He or she uses the strategy that best suits the competition-or as Tihanyi said about Baumann, the strategy is never to lose. For these athletes, it may mean a butterfly leg quicker than usual to intimidate and weaken the will of a competitor, in effect forcing a race on a competitor for which he or she is not prepared.

There is another category of swimmer in this event-the immortals: swimmers such as Dolan, Darnyi and Baumann, who because of their ability, could swim the race of their choice, imposing their will on the others because they were above having to bend their strategy to suit the competition.

Who do we choose to follow?

There are four elements to any one

performance: physiological, mental, tactical and technical. This article deals with only one, the tactical. As mentioned earlier, little has been written on any of these four elements specific to medley swimming.

Dr. Akos Toth, coach of former world record holder Tamas Darnyi, has done a wonderful piece on his swimmer, covering the technical and the tactical. Bill Sweetenham’s booklet goes a little further and deals with the physiological, tactical and technical. These works are valuable to all coaches and athletes, regardless of the level of current competition.

So, can we give our athletes a strategy based on this research? I would hardly claim that this is a perfect method. I would love to hear of someone refining it even more or coming up with something more concrete. I think it’s important to have a model around which to base our swimmers’ training and to determine their strengths and weaknesses.

Is there a practical application for what I have presented? Yes-strive for balance in your athletes’ races. What I have found most often is that my athletes are over-swimming their strengths to the detriment of their weaker strokes and to the overall balance of the performance. Coaches can use these percentages and times for pre-race strategies, post-race analysis and subsequent training plans. OP

About the Author

Jasen Pratt is the head coach of the Regina Optimist Dolphins Swim Club and the University of Regina Swim Team in Canada. Pratt welcomes any feedback, positive or negative, at

Copyright Sports Publications, Inc. Oct-Dec 2000

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved

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