The 400 IM, or How to Teach Yourself Not to Panic

Don’t panic and carry a towel: good advice for hitchhikers and swimmers alike.
Image from Wikipedia Commons.

I’ve started swimming 400 IMs. I’m not swimming them because I need to practice all four competitive strokes for my ten mile swim. I’m swimming them because I need to practice not panicking.

But let me back up. An IM is an individual medley, equal distances of the four competitive strokes in a set order: butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, freestyle. A 100 IM is 25 yards (or meters) of each one; a 200 IM is 50 of each; etc. A 400 IM, then, is 100 butterfly, 100 backstroke, 100 breaststroke, 100 freestyle.

The 400 IM is traditionally considered a tough event. It is the longest IM swum in regular competition, and it hurts like hell. Tony Austin at SCAQblog has suggested that there should be a merit badge for every USA Swimming kid who completes a 400 IM without disqualification in competition; I want a badge just for doing the 400 IM without dying in practice.

Merit badge for surviving a 400 IM: Image from SCAQblog

As I said above, I don’t need to practice the four competitive strokes to do them during the ten mile swim. I will probably do some breaststroke along the way–it’s easy to look around and get your bearings doing breaststroke–and if the weather is nice, I’ll do some backstroke to look up at the beautiful Minnesota sky. But I don’t plan to do miles of either back or breast, and I don’t plan to do any butterfly at all.

I’m practicing the 400 IM for other reasons. Both Lynne Cox (Open Water Swimming Manual) and Steven Munatones (Open Water Swimming) advocate doing all strokes in practice for open water events. Cox notes, “It [doing the four strokes] will give you a variety of swimming skills to work out; it will keep your mind active; and it will enable you to work and stretch different muscle groups so that you can build overall strength” (60). Munatones adds another advantage, “The ability to swim straight is one of the best assets of an open water swimmer. In addition to bilateral breathing and having an efficient freestyle stroke, you can help yourself become more symmetrical by adding butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, and individual medley sets to your pool swimming workouts” (121).

Check out this USA Swimming video of the 2013 National Championships in the women’s 400 IM; two of the eight competitors are introduced as 10K swimmers as well as pool swimmers.

I would add yet one more advantage to swimming the 400 IM to the ones named by Cox and Munatones: it builds perseverance. A 400 IM is at the edge of my endurance. It’s the 100 butterfly, of course: 25 yards is not a problem, 50 yards is doable, but 75 yards begins to hurt, and somewhere between 75 and 100 I can’t breathe. Sometimes I can’t get the air in. Sometimes I inhale water. Getting to the backstroke leg is a relief but not a rest; I still have 300 more yards to go.

This, I would say, is a good simulation of choppy water conditions at the end of a long race: I’m worn out, I get a faceful of water, and I can’t breathe. It’s not that I’m practicing the IM. I’m practicing swimming while coughing and feeling as if I’m dragging an anchor.

Some days I’ve just thrown a 400 IM somewhere into my 4000 yards. But I’ve also done this ladder set as my main set a few times; I adapted it from Steven Munatones’s IM workout suggestions in Open Water Swimming. I take 15 seconds (or so) between each swim:

100 IM + 100 free
200 IM + 200 free
300 IM + 300 free
400 IM + 400 free
= 2000 yards

It’s not pretty, and it hurts a lot. But I can do it. I’m learning not to panic.

2 thoughts on “The 400 IM, or How to Teach Yourself Not to Panic

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