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Determinants of Masters Swimming Performance

Take Home Points on Determinants of Masters Swimming Performance

  1. The optimal time to maximize competitive performance in masters swimming is in the first year within a new age group
  2. Masters swimming champions in 50m freestyle exhibit a smaller age decrement than those at the bottom of top ten lists
  3. Grip strength is one modifiable physical trait that predicts performance among masters swimmer.
Yesterday, Dr. Barbosa examined performance changes throughout the swimming lifespan. In this post, we'll complement that topic focusing on the masters swimming literature.  

Masters swimming is a world unto itself, with different demands than youth, age group, college, and professional swimming.  Whereas younger swimmers have time on their side and biology to accelerate development, masters swimmers face different challenges.  In this post, we’ll explore the literature documenting factors affecting masters swimming performance.  Certainly, some traits (stroke mechanics, conditioning) will affect all swimmers, but some biological forces are unique to the masters population.    


Physical qualities may distinguish between relatively homogenous groups of swimmers.  While some qualities are not modifiable (you can’t go back in time and build a giant base if you never had that experience), knowledge of certain traits may guide the training process.  Zampagni (2006) sampled 136 elite masters and 125 non elites and found that age, height, and hand grip strength were the best predictors in short-distance events, whereas only age and height were predictors in middle- and long-distance events in both elite and non-elite masters swimmers.  You obviously can’t modify age, but you can affect hand grip strength, whether directly or indirectly, if hand grip strength is a proxy for neural drive.    


Age would seem to be an obvious factor, but how does it affect performance?  As a general rule, “The decline in performance among national champion swimmers, both men and women and in short and long swims, is linear, at about 0.6% per year up to age 70-75, after which it accelerates in quadratic fashion” (Rubin 2013).  Fairbrother (2007) noted a similar progression studying freestyle distance competitors at national championships, with the most extreme declines occurring after age 70. 

In a similar study examining masters sprinters, Fairbrother (2007) noted that first place finishers exhibited a more gradual increase in time (slowing down) with age than did those closer to tenth place.  Its unclear if the champions trained differently than the other competitors or if other health factors or genetics aided their ability to sustain performance.  
Another factors affecting championship performance is where the swimmer stands within their age group.  Whereas older swimmers have an advantage in the two year age brackets of age group swimming, younger swimmers have the advantage in the masters community.  Medic (2011)noted “the odds of a Masters swimmer participating in the championship during the first constituent year of any 5-year age category was more than two times greater than the odds of that athlete participating during the fifth constituent year.”  In fact, I recall one of my former teams in which one swimmer made several record attempts at morning practice in the first two weeks after a birthday aged her into the next age group!  As swimmers reach the higher age groups, we’d expect five year age differences to be magnified even further. 


Masters swimmers constantly battle father time, while time naturally aids development in youth swimmers.  Understanding the natural course of performance decrements can help masters swimmers set appropriate goals and help coaches to provide appropriate training loads. 


  1. Fairbrother JT.  Prediction of 1500-m freestyle swimming times for older masters all-American swimmers.  Exp Aging Res. 2007 Oct-Dec;33(4):461-71.
  2. Rubin RTLin SCurtis AAuerbach DWin C.  Declines in swimming performance with age: a longitudinal study of Masters swimming champions.  Open Access J Sports Med. 2013 Mar 12;4:63-70. doi: 10.2147/OAJSM.S37718. eCollection 2013.
  3. Zampagni MLCasino DBenelli PVisani AMarcacci MDe Vito G.  Anthropometric and strength variables to predict freestyle performance times in elite master swimmers.  J Strength Cond Res. 2008 Jul;22(4):1298-307. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31816a597b.
  4. Medic NYoung BWMedic D.  Participation-related relative age effects in Masters swimming: a 6-year retrospective longitudinal analysis.  J Sports Sci. 2011 Jan;29(1):29-36. doi: 10.1080/02640414.2010.520726.
  5. Fairbrother JT.  Age-related changes in top-ten men's U.S. Masters 50-m freestyle swim times as a function of finishing place.  Percept Mot Skills. 2007 Dec;105(3 Pt 2):1289-93.
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.


  1. Christopher StevensonTuesday, February 04, 2014

    Implying that the relationship between hand grip and swimming performance is causal is a highly misleading IMO ("correlation is not causation" and all that). Your point #3 implies that if I spend my time on the couch squeezing a ball then I will be a faster masters swimmer, which I find doubtful. It seems more plausible that strength training and possibly even water training will increase both grip strength and swimming performance.

    As a proxy measure hand grip seems a useful tool. As a way to swim faster, not so much.

  2. Thanks for your feedback. Agreed the "Take Home Point" could be read to imply causality, which was not the intent. Sorry for any confusion there.

    For additional coverage on grip strength as a proxy variable for neural drive and physical readiness, please see (http://www.swimmingscience.net/2012/09/autonomic-nervous-system-readiness.html) and (http://centerofoptimalrestoration.com/2012/09/25/handgrip-strength-predicts-100-meter-performance/)

  3. Nice post. As a strength coach, I see it frequently. The athletes with more upper body strength which commonly includes sprinters have stronger grip strengths. This is observed in how they grip the bars, bells and perform body weight exercises on their hands. Athletes with poor kinesthetic awareness also struggle with wrist and hand position, which may affect strength. McGill talks about bending the bar (engage the kinetic chain & core). Some athletes naturally do it better than others. As loads go up in training, motor control changes and grip position is commonly altered, I have been using FatGripz to facilitate better forearm activation and simulate the common hand positions seen in swimming versus a closed fist in boxing (narrow bar grip). Thanks, Brett

  4. Hi
    I want to learn swimming and looking for some video coach/training video for self learning if any one knows where to get those.