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Take Home Points for Long Course vs. Short Course Swimming

  1. Elite male and female freestyle swimmers averaged 2% faster at short course versus long course.
  2. Gender differences decreased as distance increased.
  3. Male times did not differ between LCM and SCM in the 1500m.  Females swam FASTER in LCM than SCM in the 800m.


Last year, we addressed factors that may affect long course and short course performance. (See Long Course vs Short Course Swimming) With short course yards competition presently in full effect in the US, long course may seem like a distant goal. Still, it’s never too early to think ahead, as summer long course planning has begun in many programs.  In this post, we’ll assess recently published empirical data on differences in short course and long course performance. 

Wolfrum (2013) conducted an expansive study on over 90,000 data points in both national and international level swimmers in Switzerland.  Though some data was germane to national development in Swiss athletes, the research addressed two major questions that could be extrapolated beyond national borders. 

1)  Were there any significant differences between courses?

Not surprisingly, swimming performances in short course (meters) were faster than long course, with the actual difference at 2% in the entire data set including both genders.   In both genders, SCM performance was significantly faster in the 50m through the 400m.  Of special note was the convergence in short course and long course times in the 800m and 1500m, with the women actually FASTER in 800m LCM than SCM. Men showed a similar trend, with LCM and SCM times effectively equal in the 1500m. 

Though this result may seem counterintuitive, it could also be that swimmers approach long course championships with greater priority, with a stronger taper negating the course setup difference.  However, it could also indicate that swimmers in the sample are not maximizing their underwater performance in distance events.  This type of comparison would be instructive in a US sample, where SCY and LCM are vastly different pool setups.

2)  Did gender differences exist in long course and short course swimming?

The second major question addressed for international interest is whether males and females show any significant differences.   Authors summarized, “our results further showed that the sex-related difference in Swiss long-course events increased over time, because the performance of Swiss men improved, while performance of Swiss women did not. The sex-related difference in Swiss short-course events did not change, because neither men nor women showed improvement on short course.”  

One caveat to the short course trend is that fewer swimmers competed at meaningful domestic short course meets in Switzerland, possibly skewing this data portion.  Again, the cultural values toward short course swimming may necessitate specific inquiry into United States trends given our heavy emphasis on SCY at many levels.   


Though this data largely validates what we already know about long course and short course differences, the time convergences between SCM and LCM in distance events may suggest more room for improvement in underwater performances in mid distance and distance races.   In shorter events, the difference between SCM and LCM may reflect the modern focus on underwater training, as many coaches and swimmers have rightly regarded turns and underwaters as separate events unto themselves.  The data can also be used to motivate swimmers who are slower than 2% slower long course.


  1. Wolfrum MKnechtle BRüst CARosemann TLepers R.  The effects of course length on freestyle swimming speed in elite female and male swimmers – a comparison of swimmers at national and international level.  Springerplus. 2013 Dec 1;2:643. doi: 10.1186/2193-1801-2-643. eCollection 2013.
Written by Allan Phillips is a certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS) and owner of Pike Athletics. He is also an ASCA Level II coach and USA Triathlon coach. Allan is a co-author of the Troubleshooting System and was selected by Dr. Mullen as an assistant editor of the Swimming Science Research Review. He is currently pursuing a Doctorate in Physical Therapy at US Army-Baylor University.
Dr. John Mullen, DPT, CSCS world-renowned physical therapist and strength coach.
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