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Data Source: Zamparo P, Bonifazi M (2013). Bioenergetics of cycling sports activities in water.

Coded for Swimming Science by Cameron Yick

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Base Training for Swimming

Take Home Points on Base Training for Swimming:
  1. Different approaches exist for base training
  2. Traditional approaches have focused on building an aerobic base through
  3. Base training should be more individualized than uniform application of high yardage to an entire squad
As swimmers transition from summer training to fall training, many programs move from a
competition focus to base focus.  The term base training is often discussed but often has varied interpretations on the pool deck.  Traditionally, base training has marked a return to less intense and more aerobically based swim training after a summer of racing.  Though some would describe base replenishing the aerobic system after a period of shorter distance focus, optimal dosage is less clear, particularly in determining transfer to shorter events.

One of the most referenced studies in swimming (Costill 1991) found that adding a period of two-a-days for increased mileage in the early portion of a training cycle did not lead to significant short term improvements, but did result in significant improvement after a late season taper.  Was it the traditional base training that led to improvement or some other factors?  Wakayohsi (1993) found that six months of aerobic base training improved 4 x 400m swim test velocity, but its unclear if this training would have effectively transferred to shorter distance racing.  (additionally, this study was only eight male swimmers with no control group).  

Care must also be taken to accommodate swimmers entering base from different starting points.  On a single team you can have swimmers who competed all summer in national and international meets, those who did consistent but not intense training, those who cross trained, and those who barely did anything.  Each type of swimmer will require a different approach, no matter how emotionally invested a coach is in his/her one-size-fits-all program (and no matter how much they want to punish the lazy swimmers who didn’t train during the summer).   This is a key but often overlooked point of base. 

'The longer and more substantial is this basic form of training, the better and longer an athlete will be able to hold a peak performance capability when serious competitions occur. The corollary to this statement is: an athlete's ability to hold a peak performance status is directly proportional to the amount of base (preparatory or background) training that is done." (Rushall 1994)

Now, while most would agree with this statement, the HOW is less clear.  Some interpret this to mean base training should include record setting yardage with ample doses of 400-1000yd repeats.  Others may interpret “longer and substantial” to mean never take a break.  In truth, the varying interpretations of base training reflect the nature of base training as being grounded in as much art as science.  True, it’s possible to measure baseline fitness through time trials, lactate, VO2max, etc but deciding how to improve those parameters and what to do with that information is less well established. 


Though many definitions of base exist, we should all agree that base is about preparing for the next phase of training.  Base can also be seen as having dual purposes, from preparing for future competitions while actively recovering from prior hard training.  This may also support the idea of planned time off in which swimmers focus on non-swimming activities.  

“The basic preparatory phase can include activities drawn from sports which are related to swimming. This phase of training would also include the greatest amount of auxiliary training.  However, because such activities are beneficial for establishing a physiological base, does not mean that they are just as beneficial when highly specialized training is employed. At that time they have the potential to disrupt refined neuromuscular patterns associated with skill.” (Rushall 1994)

Ultimately, base should be seen as simply that: a base.  Determine what the athlete needs for late season success and build the foundation from the base phase.  


  1. Wakayoshi K1, Yoshida TIkuta YMutoh YMiyashita M.  Adaptations to six months of aerobic swim training. Changes in velocity, stroke rate, stroke length and blood lactate.   Int J Sports Med. 1993 Oct;14(7):368-72.
  2. Costill DL1, Thomas RRobergs RAPascoe DLambert CBarr SFink WJ.  Adaptations to swimming training: influence of training volume.  Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1991 Mar;23(3):371-7.
  3. Dr. Brent Rushall.  ANNUAL PLANNING FOR SWIMMING FITNESS.  Adapted from NSWIMMING COACHING SCIENCE BULLETIN: Volume 2 Number 6 - July-August, 1994.
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.

Friday Interview: Danny Taylor Discusses Deceptive Training

1. Please introduce yourself to the readers (how you started in the profession, education, credentials, experience, etc.).
My name is Danny Taylor and I am now in the final stages of a part-time PhD which is concerned with how pacing, physiology and perceptual responses influence triathlon performance, specifically in the presence of deceptively manipulated performance beliefs/feedback. I am fortunate enough to have had a number of studies from this thesis already published in peer-reviewed journals or at scientific conferences. My career in sports science began in 2007, when I completed my undergraduate Sport & Exercise Science degree here at the University of Lincoln, gaining first class honours. I then worked as a Sports Science Technician and visiting lecturer on the Schools undergraduate programmes, before moving into my current role as an Instructor in Sport (Physical Sciences) in 2009. Alongside my teaching and research activity I continue to provide physiological support to athletes from a variety of sports, including triathlon, kayaking and professional motor racing, establishing training recommendations based on sport-specific assessments and combined athlete/coach goals. I also try to practice what I preach/study, having competed locally for the last 6 years or so as an (enthusiastic but mid-pack!) age-group triathlete - from sprint events up to Ironman distance (but not beyond……yet!).

2. You recently published an article on deceptive training for triathletes. First, what is deceptive training?
We did indeed, although rather than looking at deceptive methods during a period of training this particular study examined the impact of deception during an endurance event (triathlon). From this perspective, the study of deception in sport to date usually involves providing some form of incorrect information to athletes (about one or more key performance-related variable) to try and improve their performance.

All competing endurance athletes have to constantly balance their desire to achieve the fastest possible finishing time against the sustainability of their pace. To protect them from premature exhaustion or harm during such performance, it is thought that an athlete’s brain incorporates a substantial ‘reserve’ capacity, which essentially ‘caps’ exercise intensity so that their absolute physiological capacity is never fully reached. Allowing endurance athletes to safely access any amount of this ‘physiological overdraft’ may therefore improve their performance. Providing deceptive feedback has the potential to achieve this, as it can manipulate the expectations or beliefs that an athlete’s brain will use as a reference to base any on-going pacing decisions on.

3. What do we know about deceptive training?
In terms of the effects of deception on performance and pacing, researchers from Edge Hill University in the UK have only recently published two nice review articles summarising the current state-of-play (see below) - primarily that there are so many inconsistencies in the way deception is studied that it is difficult to draw any definitive conclusions about how pacing strategy and performance are affected by its use (so further work, such as our recent study, is much needed!). Some practical recommendations are that deception of exercise intensity (rather than time, distance etc.), using some method of real-time visual feedback and in a competitive setting (e.g. an on-screen competitor) may provide the most successful means to enhance performance, compared to other methods. Also, there is potential to incorporate deception into training and/or test efforts to elevate how athletes perceive the success of previous performances (and therefore alter their experience and expectation of similar future tasks), as this appears to improve subsequent performance. However, the study of how effective deceptive methods are during training is somewhat thin on the ground, and requires much more attention moving forwards.

Jones, H. S., Williams, E. L., Bridge, C. A., Marchant, D., Midgley, A. W., Micklewright, D., & Mc Naughton, L. R. (2013). Physiological and Psychological Effects of Deception on Pacing Strategy and Performance: A Review. Sports Medicine, 43(12), 1243-1257.
Williams, E. L., Jones, H. S., Sparks, S. A., Marchant, D., Micklewright, D., & Mc Naughton, L. R. (2013). Deception Studies Manipulating Centrally Acting Performance Modifiers: A Review. Medicine & Science in Sports and Exercise [in press].

4. What did your study look at?
We examined the effects of speed deception on performance, physiological and perceptual responses, and pacing during the run section of sprint-distance triathlon. Specifically, we asked a group of competitive triathletes to complete three separate lab-based sprint-distance triathlons (at least 3 days apart), with all swimming and cycling sections mimicking a previous baseline triathlon performance. During the first 1.66 km of the run each athlete was required to maintain an imposed speed, and then complete the remaining 3.33 km as quickly as possible. Although the athletes were told that this initially imposed running speed would always reflect baseline performance, this was true during only one trial. As such, other trials were either 3% faster, or 3% slower than their baseline run speed during this initial period.

5. Why did you choose 3% deceptions? 
In a previous study (Taylor, Smith & Vleck, 2012) we found that the typical trial-to-trial fluctuation in triathlon run performance for age-group athletes (without any kind of experimental intervention) was between 0.8 and 2.9%, or between 10 and 38 seconds in terms of overall 5 km run time. We therefore reasoned that a deceptive running speed of 3% would allow a worthwhile change in performance to be imposed (i.e. big enough to alter the outcome of non-elite, sprint-distance triathlon competition), whilst also minimising the chance of the participants noticing the manipulation of running speed between trials. We imposed this speed during the first 1.66 km of the run as this initial phase has been shown to be particularly important to the development and success of pacing strategies during sprint-distance triathlon, as well as during standalone 5 km road races.

6. What were the main results of the study?
In terms of run performance, an important finding of this study was that the aggressively paced deception condition was likely faster than other trials, with a typical time advantage of between 14 and 25 seconds observed over the more conservative starting strategies for the entire 5 km distance. Based on a combination of our previous research findings (see question 5 above) and typical performance trends reported during international triathlon competition, we concluded that the differences observed between each of the running trials would be enough to alter the outcome of non-elite, sprint-distance triathlon competition. As such, our results appear to disagree with the suggestion that initially aggressive pacing strategies may be detrimental to triathlon running performance, at least over the shorter sprint-distance format.

In terms of the broader issue of pacing, our findings provide further evidence that expectations or beliefs play a key role in how an athlete’s brain regulates exercise intensity so as to minimise the risk of damaging levels of physiological strain. Indeed, it would appear that even during ‘all-out’ triathlon running, athletes maintain a substantial protective ‘reserve’ capacity which can be accessed to some extent by deception to improve performance.

7. Do you think the results would differ if you had different deception percentages?
I think that this would be highly likely, although specifically how the results would be different remains to be seen. If a less severe deception percentage was used (e.g. 1-2%) then the chance of this being detected by athletes would be less likely, but it could be argued that the potential performance gains may also be reduced, compared to a higher deception percentage (e.g. 4-5%). However, the more aggressive the deception becomes then the greater the risk of it being detected and, more importantly, of it being unsustainable and negatively impacting on overall performance - so deception is a difficult balancing act. Indeed, whilst our study suggests that manipulating an athlete’s beliefs can strongly influence pace regulation, and may allow them to access a previously untapped physiological ‘reserve’, it is clear that this ‘reserve’ is not limitless. As a rule of thumb, if you have a good idea of the percentage that an athlete typically varies by (day-to-day, week-to-week) between performances in a particular event (or training/test set), then an effective and worthwhile deception percentage would be roughly half of this typical variability.

8. What are the practical implications for coaches from this study?
That even during supposed all-out performance, most athletes will hold back some form of ‘reserve’ as part of an inherent pacing/protection mechanism, and that access to this ‘reserve’ (by deception) may be beneficial in order to optimise intensity and effort during performance (or training).

In adopting deceptive methods, coaches therefore need to decide whether the key aim of that particular session is to sustain particular (high) levels effort/intensity (rather than technique, for example). If so, they need to establish an appropriate level of deception and method of delivering this - as covered in previous questions/answers. Deceptive pacing of interval/CSS sessions, by using an aquapacer, may be one type of session which would fit this description.   

9. What do we still need to understand about deception training?
An awful lot! If further work is needed to understand the effects of deception on performance and pacing generally, then we have even less research evidence relating to deceptive training methods, and even fewer studies still which relate to this in a swim-specific context. Sport-specificity is an important point in all of this, as deceptive methods may not be a ‘one-size-fits-all’ across differing events and distances, particularly in the case of swimming. Indeed, a recent study of junior 400 m swim performance suggests that initially aggressive pacing could be detrimental compared to more conservative starting strategies (see below) - potentially opposing our findings during triathlon running (although importantly these swimmers were not deceived of their pace). As such, the effectiveness of deceptive methods during training is certainly the next logical focus of my research work, both in the disciplines of triathlon and beyond.

Skorski, S., Faude, O., Abbiss, C. R., Caviezel, S., Wengert, N., & Meyer, T. (2014). Influence of Pacing Manipulation on Performance of Juniors in Simulated 400 m Swim Competition. International journal of sports physiology and performance [in press].

10. Right now, should swim coaches use deception training and if so, how would you advise?
Based on the points covered in previous questions, it is certainly a case of ‘could’ rather than ‘should’. There are simply too many unknowns, particularly in relation to swimming specifically, to give any kind of definitive answer. If coaches are thinking about using deceptive methods in training then, aside from the advice given already (e.g. recommended percentages of deception), they need to consider how to implement this type of training ethically - athletes may not be particularly happy to find out they have had the wool pulled over their eyes about their effort during training/racing! One suggested approach is to incorporate some form of disclaimer within a general informed consent form ahead of the upcoming season/training cycle. This would broadly state (amongst other important points) that some of their coached sessions could, at some point, utilise deceptive methods, but would not be specific enough to allow athlete’s to detect or guess when the methods were being used. Likewise, having completed a block of training which used deceptive methods, it is important that athletes are informed/debriefed about these afterwards. With this in mind, coaches should also be wary of using deception sparingly rather than ‘crying wolf’ – if it is used too often then it could lose its effectiveness or, worse still, have a negative effect on the coach-athlete dynamic during training.
11. What research or projects are you currently working on or should we look from you in the future?
I have just completed the data collection for my final PhD study which examines the effects of deceptively aggressive cycle pacing on physiology, perceptual responses, and performance during sprint-distance triathlon. Once the findings of this study have been worked through and written up, then I hope to complete my PhD in early 2015. As mentioned previously, my research beyond this will hopefully begin to address the use of deceptive methods during training.

For more information see:

Do Swimmers Have a Higher Pain Tolerance?

Take Home Points on Do Swimmers Have a Higher Pain Tolerance?

  1. High-level swimmers do have a high pain tolerance.
  2. However, if this is a cause or correlation with swimming training is not well understood.
As I recently wrote in aerobic exercise improves pain tolerance, many people believe they have high pain tolerances. I always find this comment entertaining, especially in the general population, as pain tolerance is unrelated to masculinity or any egotistical belief. In fact (as you'll see below), having a high pain tolerance could be harmful, as pain signals something is harmful. 

Nonetheless, many elite athletes feel they have high pain tolerances and swimmers are no different. Luckily, an older study (1981) by Scott et al. looked into this belief. 

Scott (1981) had three groups of subjects:
1)    Thirty highly conditioned Scottish National team members (M=16, F=14)
2)    Thirty club swimmers (M=13, F=17)
3)    Twenty-six non-competitive athletes (M=10, F=16)

Each subject had their ischemic pain tolerance tested.
“The arm of a subject was fixed at 90° with the hand held upwards and the elbow supported by a table. A standard sphygmomanometer cuff was wrapped around the upper arm and inflated to 100 mm Hg abovesystolic. Ischaemia was induced by having the subject open and close the hand into a fist at the rate of one fist contraction per second. A metronome helped to establish a regular rhythm. Pain threshold was recorded in terms of the number of fist contractions that produced a report of a sensation recognisable as pain and not merely discomfort.

Pain tolerance was recorded in terms of the maximum number of times the subject was willing to contract his fist under the ischaemic conditions. A fatigue score was also recorded; this corresponded to the point at which the subject could not complete full finger extension after contracting the fist. Normal grip strength of the subjects was also measured using a hand dynamometer.”

A pain questionnaire was also provided.

The researchers noted the national team had a preference for the word “tingling” to describe ischemic pain. Pain threshold scores were not different between the three groups. The national squad showed highly significant differences in pain tolerance from the other two groups. Men and women did not significantly differ. Pain tolerance scores correlated with intensity of training.


Athletes are believed to completely ignore pain of high intensity, which is not pain tolerance. However, this study suggests that the high tolerance of ischemic pain in competitive swimmers reflects a general pain tolerance.

Improved muscle fatigue is another idea for pain tolerance, but the national level swimmers did not have more hand contractions during the ischemic test.

The high pain tolerance may be from the athletes conditioning of pain. It may also be from the motivation from themselves or their coaches.

Nonetheless, a short-term adaptation doe occur with pain tolerance, as the pain tolerance does alter during the season.

Practical Implication

National level swimmers have higher pain tolerance during high-intensity training seasons of the year. This higher pain tolerance may accommodate higher training, but increase the injury risk of an athlete, due to their impaired pain signalling system.

Scott V, Gijsbers K. Pain perception in competitive swimmers. Br Med J (Clin Res Ed). 1981 Jul 11;283(6284):91-3.

Written by G. John Mullen received his Doctorate in Physical at University of Southern California (USC) and is a certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS). At USC, he was a clinical research assistant performing research on adolescent  diabetes, lung adaptations to swimming, and swimming biomechanics. G. John has been featured in Swimming World Magazine, Swimmer Magazine, and the International Society of Swim Coaches Journal. He is currently the owner of COR, providing Physical Therapy, Personal Training, and Swim Lessons to swimmers and athletes of all skills and ages. He is also the creator of the Swimmer's Shoulder SystemSwimming ScienceSwimming Science Research Review, and the Swimming Troubleshooting System.

Friday Interview: Arizona Wildcat Margo Geer

1. Please introduce yourself to the readers (how you started in swimming, etc.).

My name is Margo Geer. I’m from Milford Center, Ohio and graduated from Fairbanks High School. I began competitive swimming at the age of five. My older brother Marcus was on a team and I wanted to do more than just sit and watch. I played a variety of sports growing up but swimming was always most enjoyable to me. I trained with Springfield YMCA swim team growing up and seventeen years later I have finished my college swimming career for the University of Arizona under my coach Rick Demont. I will graduate with a major in Business Management.

2. You had a great NCAA season this year. Did you add/change anything this season?
A big emphasis in my training this season revolved around weight training and dryland. My goal was to increase strength and power that could translate into my swimming. I also have been much more aware of the nutrition and recovery factors of my training.

3. How would you describe your in-water training (race pace, distance, traditional, etc.)?
Our group is focused on sprint work. Each day of the week has a specific purpose ranging from power (bucket work), race efforts, recovery, Vo2. A large portion of our training is technique oriented. We incorporate drills into every single practice.

4. What types of dry-land have you been doing?
I follow a weight-training program designed by Rob Harris. We lift three times a week. On the days without weight room activity, our team takes time to do dry land focused on core strength before getting in the water.

6. During big meets a lot of elite swimmers use mental cues or mental skills, do you incorporate any of these?
I have been exploring this aspect of my training/ race routine more and more. It is something I have been working to improve. The mind needs training just like the body does. Getting in the right frame of mind is huge. Eliminating distractions is the main thing for me mentally.

7. At NCAAs, you were battling the 47 second barrier in the 100 and broke it leading off the relay. What was different about this race?
The only difference was my mental approach to the race. Physically, I felt very tired. It was my 13th race of the 3 day meet. I wanted to make a statement in my final collegiate race and relays are something I thoroughly enjoy. Compared to my individual race, I had more of a ‘relaxed confidence’. In my mind, I wanted to get ahead as far as possible for my team.

8. What areas in your freestyle do you still need to improve?
I think continuing to gain strength will always benefit me, as long as it translates to my swimming in a positive way. I believe bettering my kick will be huge in order to finish strong at the end of a long course 100. Training geared towards bettering my distance per stroke will continue to benefit my long course races as well.

9. What transitions and adjustments do you need to make to continue your success into long-course swimming?
Most of the transition will take place mentally. College swimming is largely team oriented and I enjoy that part so much. In my post-collegiate career I will still have a ‘team’ but it will be much more individualized.

10. What are your plans moving forward in swimming?
I will keep training in Tucson this summer. I will attend Nationals in August and set my goals high for that meet. I plan to compete at 2016 Olympic Trials.
 Thanks Margo. Follow the Arizona Swim Team on Twitter @ArizonaSwimming

Making Excellence a Habit

Take Home Points on Making Excellence a Habit

  1. Elite performers sleep more, engage in more frequent practice
  2. Excellence is “mundane" to those at the top through daily habits
  3. An attitude in which excellence becomes mundane may translate into lower performance anxiety and thus more reliable race execution

As championship season continues, it’s not long before full attention goes toward summer preparation.  In times like these, it’s a good opportunity for reflection to assess what we did well this winter and what can be improved. 

On this site, we often seek the cutting edge on swimming and athletic performance research.  But sometimes it is valuable to review landmark literature form previous decades.  In recent years, much has been written on practice habits and psychological qualities of elite performers.  This line of research has spawned a debate often distilled into the “10000 hour rule” versus “genetics.”

Unfortunately thanks to liberties taken by pop culture, what began as a very detailed and thoughtful paper has been transformed into a misunderstood catch phrase (the “10000 hour rule”).  If you actually read Erickson’s seminal work, some valuable insights emerge into the nature of skilled performance.  Though I would encourage anyone to read the full work (approximately 40 pages) here are three key points… 
  1. Quantity of practice sessions…length of practice sessions was similar across all three groups studied (elite violinists, good violinists, and music education students also studying violin), the elite violinists engaged in significantly more frequent practice. (See Duration and Frequency of Swimming Practice)
  2. Sleep has been discussed endlessly on this site, but sleep does remain a constant among elite performers in many fields…Among the violinists, the best two groups had the most sleep, exceeding that of music teachers (not certain if there is causal relation as it could be the teachers simply had more responsibilities of both playing and teaching, thus living busier lives, though authors noted the class schedules of the three groups were relatively similar.) (See Does Extra Sleep Enhance Swimming Performance)
  3. What matter is not the quantity of the hours spent, but quality spent in deliberate practice, or focused efforts: ““The goal of deliberate practice is not “doing more of the same.”  Rather, it involves full concentration in a special activity to improve one’s performance.” (Erickson 1993)

What does this mean for swimming?

Preceding Erickson’s research, but in the same vein, Chambliss (1989) conducted a qualitative yet detailed assessment of elite swimmers in the 1980s, with a focus on the Mission Viejo Nadadores.  (I likewise encourage a full reading of this work as well).  Chambliss offers many sublime observations on the qualitative angle on what drives the best in the world….

“At the higher levels of competitive swimming, something like an inversion of attitude takes place. The very features which the "C" level swimmer finds unpleasant, the top level swimmer enjoys. What others see as boring, they find peaceful, meditative, often challenging, or therapeutic....It is incorrect to believe that top athletes suffer great sacrifices to achieve their goals. Often, they don't see what they do as sacrificial at all. They like it." (Chambliss 1989)

Further, the manner in which elites are shown to approach practice reveals nothing particularly noteworthy, other than the same painstaking attention to detail shown by the elite violinists studied by Erickson…

“Superlative performance is really a confluence of dozens of small skills or activities, each one learned or stumbled upon, which have been carefully drilled into habit and then are fitted together into a synthesized whole.  There is nothing extraordinary or superhuman in those actions, only the fact that they are done consistently and correctly, and all together, produce excellence.” (Chambliss 1989)


The ultimate implication of this literature is how it affects our mindset into championship meets.  When good habits become ingrained as nothing more than routine, the swimmer no longer needs to feel as though he or she must summon superhuman powers to succeed on race day.  Maybe we sabotage ourselves with the mythical qualities ascribed to the taper, but herein lies the intersection of the physical and mental.  When excellence becomes mundane in practice, achievement becomes inevitable in competition. 


  1. Erickson K, Krampe R, Tesch-Romer, C.  The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance.  Psychological Review, Vol 100, No 3, 363-406, 1993.
  2. Chambliss, D.  The Mundanity of Excellence: An Ethnographic Report on Stratification and Olympic Swimmers, Sociological Theory, Vol 7, No 1, (Spring 1989), 70-86.
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.

Guide to LTAD in Swimmers

Take Home Points on the Guide to LTAD in Swimmers

  1. Performance of age-group swimmers depends from the interaction of several domains
  2. Anthropometrics & biological maturation, Genetics, Biomechanics & Motor control and Psychology are the main determinant factors
  3. There are available several straightforward and quick testing procedures for a coach monitor these determinant factors.
Lately, we've posted articles on age-group swimmers breaking national age-group worldwide [Are Youth Swimmers Getting Faster...Any Why? Part I, Are Youth Swimmers Getting Faster...And Why? Part IIAre Youth Swimmers Getting Faster...And Why? Part III]. So what are the main performance determinants in such early ages? How is it possible for a coach with a low budget and short of time to monitor performance and its determinant factors at such early ages? We know that swimming performance is a multifactorial phenomenon. Performance of age-group swimmers depends from the interaction of several domains (Figure 1). The most determinants are the anthropometrics, biological maturation, genetics, biomechanics, motor control and psychology.
Figure 1. Deterministic model of the performance for age-group swimmers (adapted from Marinho et al., 2013)

1. Anthropometrics & biological maturation
For a start, performance enhancement of age-group swimmers is due to growth and biological maturation. After a summer break swimmers that were not engaged in swimming activities improved technique and performance (Moreira et al., 2014). After controlling with a mathematical procedure the growth (let´s say that in a way we are keen to see what would happen if the swimmers did not grow during the summer break) performance and technique would be the same. So, growth is a major player of age-group swimmers and probably the most influential.

Interestingly, knowing the parents heights we can predict the swimmer´s adult height. This is called as “The Khamis-Roche Method” and you can play with it here. Please bear in mind that “estimation” by definition is something that has some sort of associated error. So, this is not completely accurate.

Another key-feature is the ratio between height and arm span. The ape-index as is known should be higher than 1.0 (i.e. the arm span should be higher than the height). There is no evidence, but some researchers and coaches consider good if the ratio is around 1.05-1.10. These figures are quite arbitrary or random as there is no evidence on this (as much as I am aware of). I invite you to play with the ape-index from this link and compare yourself with Michael Phelps (allegedly his Ape Index is 1.04).

A sensitive issue, especially for girls, is the fat mass. A swimmer is supposed to have a higher percentage of fat mass than other sportsmen. It helps with buoyancy, a good body position and therefore less resistance. A straightforward way to estimate the fat mass is the US Navy Circumference Method. This method can be expanded to include other parameters, such as the level of physical activity (link). Another procedure is to estimate the fat mass after measuring a few skin folds with a caliper (caliper methods). It seems that these methods are validated for adults, so care should be exercise using if you are assessing very young children.

2. Genetics
When we talk about sports genetics most of the times people think in science fiction and not in sport sciences. Sorry for any disappointment but we are not a crime scene investigator that with a tinny hair completely damage is able to identify a criminal in a blink of an eye (pick up hair à run the genetic test à search on the database à identify the guy´s ID; all these in 30s as we watch on TV). Unfortunately in the real world we are not able to run genetic tests and say if definitely one should be a sprinter or distance-swimmer, a freestyler or breaststroker, will be a good or poor swimmer.

There are genetic polymorphisms that can be help the swimmer and the coach though. A few genetic markers and/or polymorphism were related to swimming performance, such as the Angiotensin Converting Enzime (ACE), Vascular Endothelial Growth Factor Receptor 2 (VEGFR2) or the Alpha-Actinin-3 (ACTN3) genes (Costa et al., 2013). Some polymorphisms are related to endurance and others to power.

So how useful is the genetic profiling? To learn if a swimmer is a high or a low responder. A high responder is someone that adapts very well to a given training program; while a low responder will be struggling to improve. Imagine that we have two swimmers that are engaged in the same training program for several weeks. Both put the same effort in the program but one improves much more than other. The reason might be that one is a high and the other a low responder. Have a sneak peek at this nice video about the topic.

3. Biomechanics & motor control
Recently our research group came up with a way to classify age-group swimmers (Barbosa et al., 2013). First question: why do we need to classify them? Classification is useful so that: (i) coaches and sports analysts no longer need to produce detailed explanations of the performance and its determinant factors but rather classify more broadly the swimmer as being one of a few types; (ii) enables the design of training programs according to each category; (iii) make communication between coaches and sports analysts quicker and easier. These classifications are used on regular basis in other fields, such as Medicine & Rehab.

Second question: What do we need to classify the swimmer? For this model we needed to measure the trunk transverse surface area (S), drag coefficient (CDa), speed fluctuation (dv) and average swimming speed (v). I am aware that some of these tests might be too challenging to be done in a swimming club. Hopefully most swimming associations, sports institutes and swimming federations have the expertise and equipment to collect the data.

Third question: How do I classify the swimmer? All that is needed is to collect the data and then calculate the following equations:

Cluster #1kinematics= 44.198·S - 2.852·CDa + 4.604·dv/v - 41.280                             (1)
Cluster #2anthropometrics= 49.082·S - 0.305·CDa + 2.752·dv/v - 28.175               (2)
Cluster #3hydrodynamics= 37.788·S + 17.963·CDa + 2.195·dv/v - 24.175              (3)

From the three equations, the one with the highest score refers to the cluster the swimmer should be classified as (i.e. “labeled.”). Cluster #1 is related to high speed fluctuations (i.e. less smooth swimming), Cluster #2 to high body dimensions (i.e. taller and larger) and Cluster #3 to high drag coefficient (i.e. high resistance).

Fourth question: So what? How useful these details might be? For instance, after running the tests and calculate the three equations, a swimmer is classified as being in the cluster #3 (labeled “hydrodynamics”). This means that his profile is mainly determined by a high drag coefficient. So, coaches could design a training program for him focused on technique drills, feedback with specific visual and kinesthetic cues to reduce the resistance.

4. Energetics
It is possible to enhance the performance designing two main types of training programs: improving the technique (cf 3. “biomechanics & motor control” section) or building up the energetics. Some other time I will dedicate one post exclusively to the pros and cons of each model. Anyway, for the best and for the worth, energetics is a major player. The challenge is that most accurate tests to gather insight about energetic profile are expensive, time-consuming and sometimes invasive.

There are some procedures to estimate energetic parameters and to learn, or at least have a clue, about aerobic pathways (e.g., critical speed, T30, etc.). However, most age-group swimmers race short distances that depend a lot from anaerobic sources. For these, Science was not able yet to provide us completely reliable testing procedures. I.e. tests that can be carry out during a training session in a straightforward and quick way by a coach. Once more, we should exercise some care interpreting the data from a few tests reported in the literature. I address that issue in a post published earlier.

5. Psychology
Psychology goes beyond my field of expertise (if I have any…). But something that we all talk about is that after an OG or WC edition seems that the young swimmers have a motivational boost. I am not sure if there is any research on this. But at least there are anecdotal reports of an extra motivation. Watch on TV the best of the best competing against each other’s, Championships and World records being broken makes the young swimmers to put a little bit more of effort during competitions and training sessions.

Moreover, after an OG there seems to be a generational change. Several stars announce they retirement after the OG (ones for good, others it´s more like a very long break and later on they resume the career). This generational swap has a domino effect all the way down till age-groups.


1.    Barbosa TM, Morais JE, Costa MJ, Goncalves J, Marinho DA, Silva AJ (2013). Young Swimmers' Classification Based on Kinematics, Hydrodynamics, and Anthropometrics. J Appl Biomech, ahead-of-print
2.    Costa AM, Breitenfeld L, Silva AJ, Pereira A, Izquierdo M, Marques MC (2012). Genetic Inheritance Effects on Endurance and Muscle Strength. Sports Med, 42(6): 449-458
3.    Marinho DA, Barbosa TM, Neiva HP, Costa MJ, Garrido ND, Silva AJ (2013) Applied Sports Performance Analysis: running, swimming, cycling and triathlon. In: McGarry T, O’Donoghue P, Sampaio J (Eds). Routledge Handbook of Sports Performance Analysis. pp. 436-463. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group. Oxon.
4.    Moreira MF, Morais JE, Marinho D A, Silva AJ, Barbosa TM, Costa MJ (2014). Growth influences biomechanical profile of talented swimmers during the summer break. Sports Biomech: ahead-of-print

Written by Tiago M. Barbosa that earned a PhD degree in Sport Sciences and holds a faculty position at the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

Open Water Swimming Performance Trends

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!

  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. 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.