Is there a Limit on Human Swimming Improvement?

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Take Home Points on Dryland Mistake: Lunge

  1. Progression in swimming is multi-variable.
  2. Technology, biomechanics, expansion, and evolution are four of the main variables influencing improvement.
Swimmers have continually improved in nearly every event since the first Olympiad.
However, the long debate about the potential of swimmers is frequently discussed. Now, this debate isn't isolated to swimmers, as The Science of Sport frequently discusses this topic in regards to marathon running, arguing we are far from seeing a sub-2 hour marathon (see The sub-2 hour Marathon? Who and when?). Swimming has other time barriers (0:40 100-yard male free; 0:52 100-meter female free) which many on college swimming like to predict, but this task is extremely hard in swimming, as technology, biomechanics/hydrodynamics, expansion, and evolution are continually improving with no end in sight. This makes predicting swimming records harder, as the 100-meter men’s freestyle has been broken 47 times since 1900, compared to the 400-meter men’s track record, which has been broken a mere 20 times.

1)   Technology: Swimming saw the biggest technological improvement with the hi-tech suits, but these were just one technological advance. Kick-back starts, improved caps, goggles, lane lines, pools, and much more still surround the sport making it difficult to identify their individual influence on swimming times. This will undoubtedly occur in backstroke events this upcoming years, as International events will use the new starting blocks (see Pros and Cons of New Omega Backstroke Starting Platform). These blocks will likely provide at least an improvement in 0.2 seconds, a huge boost, making backstroke times faster potentially in the absence of improvement by the athlete.
2)   Biomechanics/hydrodynamics: Less than fifty years ago, swimmers performed
belly-flop start to surface as fast as possible. Less than twenty years ago, swimmers rarely performed underwater dolphin kicks. Athletes still perform “s-curve” strokes, despite being disproven in the biomechanical literature. All of these practices likely slowed the swimmer using these skills, impairing their true potential. With the prevalence of underwater cameras, force monitors, and hopefully water resistant fine-wire EMG, more biomechanical/hydrodynamic advancements will be uncovered and implemented by the masses for all to benefit! Also, old methods (like the “s-curve”) will dissipate quicker with the availability of literature (see the Science of Performance: Extended Learning).
3)    Expansion: USA Swimming recently published the exciting figures about the increase in participation in America (surpasses 400,000 members) (Wielgus 2013). This increase in participation exposes more people to the sport and finding more genetically gifted swimmers. Now, genetics are not the only variable for success, but few would argue some athletes have superior genetics for the sport and if more people try the sport, it is likely more of the genetic gifted will swim and find success.
4)   Evolution: Whether you believe in evolution or not, no one can deny humans are growing. Simply look back a hundred years and you'll see the average height of humans is increasing. Also, the weight of humans is rapidly increasing in develop countries. Some may view the latter increase as a problem, but in sports performance it may have a beneficial aspect. If heavier people pass on traits for their children to become heavier, one could imagine they have the greater ability to put on mass and create power in the water. Now, this is purely a theory, but even if the mass theory does not become true, there is no doubt increasing in human height can improve swimming performance.

Now, these are only a few avenues which progress swimmers in the future. Other avenues like improved training, diet, supplements and much more may help swimmers, but is not as certain as these regards. What do you think? Is there a limit on swimming potential and speed or do you agree progress will be unrelenting?

References:
  1. USA Swimming - 2013 State of the Sport Address - Chuck Wielgus
By Dr. G. John Mullen received his Doctorate in Physical Therapy from the University of Southern California and a Bachelor of Science of Health from Purdue University where he swam collegiately. He is the founder of Mullen Physical Therapy, the Center of Optimal Restoration, head strength coach at Santa Clara Swim Club, creator of the Swimmer's Shoulder System, and chief editor of the Swimming Science Research Review.
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