open water swimming performance trends

Open Water Swimming Performance Trends

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TAKE HOME POINTS ON OPEN WATER SWIMMING PERFORMANCE TRENDS

  1. Open water performance peaks in the mid to early 20s for both men and women.
  2. Overall performances have generally slowed.
  3. Slowing overall times may reflect the importance of tactical surging throughout the race.
Open water swimming has been around for many years, but has grown in stature with its inclusion in the Olympic schedule. With Olympic hardware at stake, the sport attracts even higher level competition with stalwarts like Ous Meloulli and Grant Hackett having competed in the open water. Naturally, the sport has different demands than the pool, but shares common variables. 
There’s plenty of research on open water safety and tactics for channel crossings and marathon swims, along with other research on triathlon swim performance (1500m to 2.4 miles in Olympic and Ironman events). However, our focus here will be on performance characteristics in the main swimming open water events: 5k, 10k, and 25k.
Most recently, Zinng (2014) studied over a decade of World Cup performances from 2000-2012. Key findings included the following:
  1. Female swimming speed in the top 10 performances decreased in both the 5k and 25k events significantly, but significantly increased in the 10k. 
  2. Male swimming speed in the top 10 decreased in the 5k, but remained unchanged in the other two events 
  3. Females peaked at age 22.5 in the 5k, 23.4 in the 10k, 23.8 in the 25k. This average remained consistent through the study period. 
  4. Males peaked at age 24.8 and 27.2 in the 5k and 25k respectively. During the study period, the peak age in the 10k increased significantly from 23.7 to 28.0. 
Vogt (2013) studied similar data, but in a shorter time period covering World Cup races from 2008 through 2012. This research team found that “performances remained stable for the fastest elite open water swimmers [both genders] at 10 km FINA competitions between 2008 and 2012, while performances of the top ten men tended to decrease.” They also completed a gender comparison, finding that in this sample (A total of 2,591 swimmers (i.e. 1,120 women and 1,471 men)), women were approximately 7% slower than male times. 
Though 7% was shown to be a smaller gender differential compared to other ultra-endurance sports, it is an even greater difference compared to pool times. As a reference, the difference between the 1500m male and female world records is approximately 3% (Sun Yang’s 14:31 vs. Katie Ledecky’s 15:36). It could also be true that because surging plays such a key role in open water events to stay with a pack (or break those trying to keep contact), the anaerobic demands may be underappreciated. Yet in a sample of elite open water swimmers, VanHeest (2004) found that “lactate threshold (LT) occurred at a pace equal to 88.75% of peak pace for males and 93.75% for females.” 

Practical Implications on Open Water Swimming Trends

Based on the current data, it’s hard to make training conclusions beyond those pertaining to each individual athlete. The data mostly serve a descriptive purpose and perhaps highlight the role of tactics and conditions in the open water. Though most would subjectively agree that more top level swimmers are testing the open water, times have not improved significantly, and in some cases have gotten slower. Regardless of time, it is abundantly clear that open water remains an outlet where post collegiate swimmers may continue competing at a high level without the competition from precocious age groupers!
References
  1. Zingg MA, Rüst CA, Rosemann T, Lepers R, Knechtle B1. Analysis of swimming performance in FINA World Cup long-distance open water races. Extrem Physiol Med. 2014 Jan 2;3(1):2. doi: 10.1186/2046-7648-3-2.
  2. Vogt P1, Rüst CA, Rosemann T, Lepers R, Knechtle B. Analysis of 10 km swimming performance of elite male and female open-water swimmers. Springerplus. 2013 Nov 12;2:603. doi: 10.1186/2193-1801-2-603. eCollection 2013.
  3. VanHeest JL1, Mahoney CE, Herr L. J Strength Cond Res. 2004 May;18(2):302-5. Characteristics of elite open-water swimmers.
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. 
Originally posted 2/25/2014.

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