In March 2014, David Epstein, a sports science reporter, gave a brilliant TED talk, “Are athletes really getting faster, better, stronger?”, in which he explores some of the principal reasons behind the assault on the record books.
I strongly advise you watch it. It’s just under 15 minutes, and you can find it here .
In the course of this talk he covers a lot of sports, and describes why we can boil down the differences to two major factors: 1) More specialized athletes; and 2) Technology.
With the idea of focusing his ideas solely on swimming, I’m going to add two more factors: 3) Knowledge, and 4) Rule Changes.
But first, let’s address the underlying issue. Are swimmer really getting faster, better, stronger? I think we all intuitively know this is the case, but let’s look at some numbers. Below is a chart showing the number of long course world records set by year from 1970 onwards. You can immediately see that other than dry spells in the mid-1990s, and in our post-shiny suit era, world records are set at a staggering pace.
Note: For the purpose of this analysis, I only include Long Course [LC] World Records, as Short Course World Records don’t extend back far enough to allow for long term analysis.
OK, so there is no question that swimming has a lot of world records. But how does that compare with other big sports, such as track and field?
To determine this I looked at how old each world record is in both sports, and then averaged them. Since you could argue that the shiny suits skewed our results, I also did an average totally ignoring any records set during 2008 and 2009. (I kept 2007 as the chart shows it had a typical number of world records for the year.)
Average Age of World Record (years) Men Women Total
Swimming 5.0 3.9 4.5
Track and Field 14.9 18.9 17.0
Swimming (no 2008-9) 8.4 6.0 7.3
Based on this analysis, we can see that swimming is improving far more often than track and field.
Let’s take a look at why swimming is improving so much.
1) Weirder Athletes
As Epstein pointed out, swimming has certain body proportions that are better than others, and that over time our top performers have started to deviate further from the average with these body proportions. According to Epstein, “The weird get weirder”.
To check this theory for swimming, I’ve compared the top swimmers from the 2012 Olympics, Michael Phelps and Missy Franklin, with top swimmers from the 1970s, Mark Spitz (1972 Olympics) and Kornelia Ender (1976 Olympics, and since determined to have been using performance enhancing drugs – irrelevant for our purposes here). I’ve added Shirley Babashoff as well, as she would have been the dominant swimmer of the 1970s if you don’t count the East Germans.
Men Height Weight Arm Span Shoe Size
Mark Spitz 5’11” 161 lbs 6’1″ 7?
Michael Phelps 6’4″ 185 lbs 6’7″ 14
Missy Franklin 6’1″ 165 lbs 6’4″ 13
Kornelia Ender 5’8″ 130 lbs ??? ??
Shirley Babashoff 5’10” 148 lbs ??? ??
You could argue that Spitz, being the top swimmer of that time, was probably already well proportioned for swimming, with an arm span reported to be 2″ taller than his height. (The average person has an arm span equal to their height.) Compare this to Phelps, who is 5″ taller than Spitz, an arm span 6″ wider, 24 lbs heavier, and feet that are as much as 7 sizes larger (There are several different shoe sizes given for Spitz, with size 7 seeming to be the most common.)
The differences are just as great with Franklin, Ender and Babashoff. Franklin is 5″ taller and 35 lbs heavier than Ender, and 3″ taller and 17 lbs heavier than Babashoff. And although I couldn’t find Ender’s or Babashoff’s arm spans or shoe sizes, its useful to note that Franklin’s arm span is 3″ taller than her height (same as Phelps), and her shoe size is quite large for a woman.
Epstein is certainly right, at least for these swimmers. Phelps and Franklin are clearly farther from the norm than Spitz, Ender and Babashoff. They are weirder.
But those are just the champions, what about the other fast swimmers of their day? In order to assess these, I calculated the average height and weight of the 2012 Olympics Men’s 100 m butterfly final with those of the 1972 final, and the 2012 Olympic Women’s 200 m Freestyle final with those of the 1976 final. I chose these events as they are events in which the selected swimmers all excelled.
Men – 100 m Butterfly Final Ave. Height Ave. Weight
1972 6’0″ 163 lbs
2012 6’2″ 181 lbs
Women – 200 m Free Final
1976 5’9″ 140 lbs
2012 5’11” 148 lbs
We see that the 2012 swimmers are, on average, 2″ taller than their 1970s counterparts, and much heavier. 18 lbs heavier for the men, and 8 lbs heavier for the women. This matches Epstein’s comments well. The deviation from the norm has increased over time.
So why are we getting weirder swimmers?, it’s probably pretty simple. Swimming is far more popular now than it ever was before. There are over 400,000 registered swimmers in the US, with USA Swimming reporting year over year growth of between 4% and 14% for at least the last decade. That’s a huge growth. And the more swimmers, the more “weird” ones we get.
Epstein mentions one other major factor affecting sports performance: Technology. And swimming has been through a massive number of technology changes, with a couple of them reshaping our sport. I’d suggest there have been 4 areas of technology that have lead to significant performance improvements Goggles, Doping, Pool Design, and Shiny Suits
The first major change is one that so many people overlook: Goggles (see my blog post here). Prior to the late 1960s when goggles first started appearing, swimmers were fundamentally limited in how much they could train by how much abuse the eyes could take. After goggles, there was no real limiting factor any more. Goggles were first used in an international competition in 1970, and fully accepted by 1972. It could be argued that it would take another few years for the additional training impact to take effect.
To get an idea of how this impacted swimming records, let’s look at that chart of WRs by year again. Notice the higher than average records from 1971 to 1974. This appears to be strong evidence that something had happened to move records.
Let’s dive further into the data to see if we can find out more. The two charts below show the 100 Free and 1500 Free records. I’ve chosen these, as they should represent the events in which goggles should have the least and most effect. I’ve picked 1965 and 1973 as the end points, as 1965 marks the start of home made goggles, and 1973 marks the start of the East German doping program.
As expected, the 100 m World Records were little changed over the 8 years, as the impact of additional training on a sub-1 minute race is minimal. But the changes in the 1500 were enormous, with roughly a minute and a half dropped for each gender. A clear indication that goggles affected these races.
Performance Enhancing Drugs, or doping, has been hiding in virtually every sport for at least a century, although it has gotten much more sophisticated in the last 50 years. In fact, it has been so hidden, that with 1 exception in swimming, it’s almost impossible to point to any specific situations where doping is responsible for a sudden improvement in performance.
That exception, of course, is the East German state-sponsored doping program, State Plan 14.25, that ran from 1973 until 1989. For some reason it affected the women swimmers far more than the men, with the East German women totally dominating the swim scene for much of that time.
You can see by the chart below the enormous impact doping had on their performance, with the East Germans alone setting more world records in 1976 than the whole world set for most other years.
So while doping is usually a hidden and unprovable factor in overall performance improvements, in this one case it became a very visible factor.
Pool design has been an evolving art ever since swimming first started. Much like the way in which changes in running surfaces have lead to faster running times, changes in pool design have lead to faster swimming times. The early competition pools basically resembled large bath tubs, with high walls, no starting blocks, and ropes with an occasional hard buoy to mark the lanes. Now we have very sophisticated lanes ropes to absorb turbulence, wall surfaces with opening to absorb water reflections, angled starting blocks with wedges, etc. (See my “What Makes a Pool Fast” blog post here for more information about the various improvements in pool technology).
The problem is that these changes took place gradually, and over such an extended period of time, that its difficult to quantify the impact of each change. (In his TED talk, Epstein points to the newly introduced overflowing gutters as the main reason the 100 Freestyle World Record dropped by so much at the Montreal Olympics. I think he’s overlooked the impact of the East German doping program. It’s unlikely overflowing gutters are more effective than the doping program.)
Pool Design looks to be one of those factors that has so gradually and incrementally improved performance, that it cannot be easily isolated and quantified.
So much has been written about shiny suits that I’ll keep this brief. The shiny suits covered from ankle to neck to wrist, and were made with material that was more slippery than skin, buoyant, and provided compression to help maintain streamline and maintain muscle efficiency. One excellent article that I read a few years ago (and I cannot find again) beautifully explained how the additional buoyancy completely changed the delicate balance between propulsion and water resistance.
Let’s go back to that LC World Record by Year chart again. More LC WRs were set in 2008 and 2009 than were set from 2001 to 2007 combined. But more importantly, in 2010 when they were banned, not a single LC World Record was set, and with only 2 in 2011.
In fact, the only other time that world records were set as often was during the East German doping scandal of the mid-1970s. And during that time, World Records were not recognized for the 50 Backstroke, Breaststroke or Butterfly, as they were in 2008 and 2009.
Basically, shiny suits affected swim performance to roughly the same extent as the massive East German state-sponsored doping program.
Swimming is a surprisingly complex, objective sport in terms of its movements. By objective, I refer to the objective measures of time used to judge our sport. This makes it unlike any of the far more complex one-on-one fighting sports, or the more subjective, judged sports. When you compare swimming movements to those of running, cycling, rowing, shot put, discus, etc, you can see how many small movements we have to master, especially for the IM. Reasonably speaking, this puts on a par with the decathlon or modern pentathlon.
With complexity comes a larger need for knowledge, in terms of the optimal kinetics of each motion, as well as how best to train for the various races.
There have been many examples of our increasing knowledge of the kinetics of swimming. We eventually learned that front crawl is faster than heads up breaststroke. That flutter is faster than whip kick. That an exaggerated S-shaped pull was not the best technique. That dives should not involve as much distance in the air as possible, causing a much steeper entry. All of these things help us to get faster.
There is one recent kinetic improvement that has had a huge and lasting impact, and that underwater dolphin kicking. Started first in a small way by Jesse Vassallo in the late 1970s, and then adopted more fully by Daichi Suzuki in the early 1980s, underwater kicking has proven to be the fastest form of swimming. So much so that FINA ended up having to limit the distance swimmers could go underwater, or virtually every race would be performed submerged.
Here’s a graph of the Men’s 100 M Backstroke WR from 1975 through to 1999. Those drops are mainly due to two things: underwater kicking, and the backstroke flip turn rule change discussed below.
One other interesting fact popped out during this analysis. The 2 events with the most broken World Records since 1970 are the 100 Breaststroke (66) and the 200 Breaststroke (60). This strongly indicates that Breaststroke is the most complex of the strokes, and the one that can benefit the most from increased knowledge.
Swimming has always been a vibrant sport in that new training theories and strategies are constantly introduced and discussed, and then adopted by some and ignored by others. As a result it’s hard to pinpoint any particular training concepts that lead to definitive and measurable improvements in world records.
However, this is not to say that new training concepts haven’t resulted in improved performance over time. In the 1970s it was not uncommon for swimmers to train up to 30 hours a week in the water, and then throw in many additional hours of dryland, with virtually no time for the muscles to repair. Often this lead to drastically shortened swimming careers. it’s completely normal now to see world class swimmers in their late 20s and older.
So while I maintain that increased knowledge in training is a major factor in improved performances, it’s not one that can be easily isolated and quantified.
4) Rule Changes
Swimming is a somewhat unusual sport in that there have been a constant stream of rule changes, almost all of which have resulted in faster times. In fact, it’s to the point now where we fully expect a new set of rule changes every time FINA meets to review them.
Here are three of the more impactful rule changes.
Freestyle flip turn (1956)
Prior to the rule allowing a flip turn, the swimmer had to touch the wall with the hand, and then execute whatever turn they wished. The rule to allow a “tumble turn”, or flip turn improved the World Records, as shown here.
100 m Free LC WR 1955 1957
Men 55.8 54.6
Women 64.5 62.0
Backstroke Flip Turn (1991)
Prior to the modern day backstroke flip turn, the swimmer had to touch the wall with the hand while on the back, and then usually doing a version of a bucket or swivel turn before pushing off on the back.
BR pullout dolphin kick (2005)
One of the most famous rule changes in recent memory was really a non-event, as the world record holder had already been using the altered rule. In 2005 FINA allowed one underwater dolphin kick during the breaststroke pullout. We really can’t look at World Records for verification of its impact, as Kosuke Kitajima was already a master of this kick well before the ruling took effect. However, it is safe to say that the introduction of this kick certainly sped up the underwater portion. In fact, at the 2012 Olympics most of the men’s 100 m breaststroke finalists were doing 3 kicks. As one coach put it, breaststroke is the wild west right now.
We’ve identified many reasons as to why swimming continues to break records at a ferocious pace. One last chart to summarize this. There is one last feature here that I don’t understand. The sudden surge of World Records for 1999 and 2000.
Epstein’s last comments in his TED talk were based on how the mind may be the biggest limiting factor in our performance, and the basis for our next great improvements. I couldn’t agree more. Now that we have a new set of champions and swimming icons to watch, we can expect even more out of the next generation of swimmers.