The participation in the older groups of masters swimmers is only growing. What is more impressive is that older masters swimmers are swimming faster now than they ever have before. Along with all other strokes, the butterfly performance of masters swimmers continues to improve.
Why have we seen a dramatic increase in the number of masters swimmers? What is contributing to the improved performances?
We were able to learn the answers to these questions from a leading researcher Beat Knechtle. His most recent article looks at the performance trends of masters swimmers competing in the butterfly events at World Championships. You can find the full research abstract here.
You can see our full interview below!
1. Please provide a brief summary of your study design for our readers.
The development of performance in elite swimmers is well investigated and well known for all disciplines and distances. Most important is to know for elite swimmers that only records were broken in recent years in women and in 25 m pool, but not in men and 50 m pool swimming. Little was known for age group swimmers (master swimmers) and we, therefore, analyzed the trend elite master swimmers competing at the World Championships.
2. What do you believe are the most significant factors that have enhanced performance in the butterfly events across all age ranges and distances? If you are a masters swim coach, how should these factors impact your training plan?
We analyzed the data from the World Championships 1986-2014. During this period of nearly 30 years, life expectancy has for sure increased. What we also should consider is that elderly swimmers have the possibility to compete in master races. Before this possibility, an athletic career was finished after competing at the elite level. So most probably – like in athletics – a master swimmer who is competing in his age group is motivated by the following fact. For example, a master athlete at the age of 64 years (M60) has to compete against younger swimmers (60- 64 years) and will most probably have problems to make a podium in his age group. So he is motivated to continue training and competing until he can enter age group M65 to be the youngest and maybe the fastest in this age group. So he can continue until age group M105. This fact will have no impact on training, but on the motivation of the athlete to continue training.
3. Do you believe that performance improvements and increased participation in masters butterfly events were also present in masters athletes who did not participate in the FINA World Championships?
World Championships are held every two years at different places in the world. Most likely, mainly local athletes will compete in such races due to high costs of traveling for the other athletes. So master races should be offered in every country on a regular basis, not only Championships such as European or World Championships. When we consider running, any age group runner can compete in a marathon and will be classified in his age group. And marathon races are held nearly every weekend.
4. Do believe that we will see a similar trend of improved performance and increased participation over the next 2-3 decades? What does this mean for the sport of Masters Swimming?
Life expectancy is still increasing. However, we will soon reach a limit. Age group M105 is the oldest age group in master swimming. Regarding our data analyses, the number of elderly swimmers has increased in the very old age groups M90 and M95.
5. What do you believe are the top 2-3 take away messages from your study that swimmers and coaches can use to improve the performance of masters athletes?
The most important is for the master athlete to be motivated to continue training although others might win the medals in the races. Participation in the very old age groups such as M90 and M95 is very low and the possibility to win a medal increases with increasing age. So this is the key!
6. Anything else that you would like to share with our readers?
Master swimmers should not restrict to one discipline or one distance. Swimming offers different strokes and different distances including open-water swimming. So any master swimmer intending to win medals must train and compete in as many strokes and distances as possible. One day, the swimmer will receive a return on investment!
As Beat suggests, at the world championship level, there are far fewer butterfly swimmers in the older age groups. It swimmers are interested in improving their performance compared to their age-matched peers, one of the main keys to success is staying healthy and continuing to train and compete long-term.
We would like to thank Beat Knechtle for sharing his insight on this topic. If you are interested in learning more about his work click here.
Beat Knechtle is a researcher at the Institute of General Practice and for Health Services Research, University of Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland. His numerous scientific research studies focus on performance and energy turnover of endurance and ultra-endurance athletes, sex differences in athletic performance and countless other exercise science-related topics.