Swimming By the Numbers: Elite Men’s 400 Freestyle Strategies

Sun Yang

This is a continuation of my series on how the elite swim various races. In my last instalment in this series I analyzed the women’s 400 Free.

There is no question that the 400 is a distance-oriented race, and so we can expect distance-oriented strategies. The purpose of this analysis is to determine which strategies are used by elite swimmers.

The Data

For this complete series of race analyses, the data set consists of the top 24 swimmers from the 2012 Olympics and the 2012 US Olympic Trials. For each selected swimmer, I used the fastest time they swam during the competition, and not just the last swim. I also collected each swimmer’s 100 Freestyle PB as of the time of the 2012 Olympics (disregarding any shiny suit swims).

I used the term ‘Offset’ to represent the difference between a swimmer’s split, and their PB for that distance. Ex. If a swimmer does a 56.0 as one of their 100 splits, and their 100 PB is 50.0, then their Offset for that split is 6.0. You’ll soon see why this concept is useful.

Men’s 400 Freestyle Analysis

When analyzing the 200 Freestyle race (see here), I came across some interesting comparisons between the men’s race and the women’s 200m race. For both genders, the 1st 50 was strongly correlated with overall success, meaning the very fastest 200 swimmers tended to have the very fastest 1st 50 splits. However, the men generally had a more aggressive last 50 than the women. One strange aspect did come out. The very fastest men tended to swim the 1st part of the race with lower offsets (closer to their 50 PBs) than the rest of the elite men, while the very fastest women tended to swim that first part with higher offsets . It will be interesting to see if the 400 Freestyle shows the same indications.

Much of this analysis involves grouping the 24 swimmers into 3 groups of 8 (top 8, middle 8, bottom 8) based on different race elements, such as 400 time, 100 PB, 1st 100 split, 2nd 100 split, etc. )

This first chart shows the average splits for the top, middle and bottom groups of 8 according to their 400 times. I’ve included the data from the women’s 400 freestyle as well (see post here).


Other than slightly tighter splits with the men’s group averages, we can see that the men’s and women’s races are remarkably similar when looking at the raw splits.

Now let’s look at the same race using Offset 100s instead of raw splits.


We can see that the shape of the offset 100 profiles is very similar for both genders. In other words, the general strategies for both genders is very similar. We can construct a general elite 400 strategy for both men and women, as follows:

Elite 400 fr strategy

Now we can clearly see another very interesting aspect to this data. We can see that for all 3 groups, the women swim their 400s with significantly lower offsets at every 100 split than even the fastest men’s group. The differences are between 0.8 and 1.3 for the 100s. As it’s unlikely that elite women all swim every 100 of the race more aggressively than any of the elite men, we need to look for another possibility.

400 Fr 100 PB Quality

The men do tend to have a slightly faster average 100 PB compared to the 2012 Olympic gold medal time than the women, but this difference only accounts for less than half of the gender difference in 100 Offsets.

Next, I wanted to find out which part of the race separated the fastest elite swimmers from the rest. For each 100 split I ordered the swimmers from fastest to slowest split time, and then determined how closely this order matched the order for the overall race. The smaller the number, the closer the match, and therefore the more important that particular 100.

400 Fr 100 Split Correlation

Another gender difference pops up here. In the women’s 400 free the 1st 100 was the most important, with the fastest 1st 100 splits corresponding well with the fastest 400 times. In the men’s 400 free, the 1st 100 was by far the least important, while the 2nd 100 was the most important. Basically, the men’s race really starts in earnest in the 2nd 100, and stays focussed right through to the end.

The Best

Finally, we’ll look at the race strategies of the top 4 swimmers to see if they did something different from the rest.


We can see here that the first 100 for each of the swimmers is remarkably similar. After that things start to deviate. Vanderkaay pushes out some lower offset 100s for the rest of the race, with Yun trying to keep low offsets, and then faltering, The most remarkable swim belongs to Sun Yang. Incredibly, despite having the 2nd fastest 1st 100 split out of the group of 24, Yang then does his last 100 even faster, beating the next fastest last 100 split by almost 2 seconds. Park Tae-hwan and Peter Vanderkaay end up swimming somewhat traditional distance profiles, while Yun races more of a sprinters profile with a last 100 clearer slower than his other splits.


For the most part, the men’s and women’s 400 Freestyle races are very similar, with the majority of swimmers using a distance profile strategy.

Interestingly, the women swim the 400 with significantly lower offsets (100 splits closer to their 100 PBs) then the men, and this difference is still significant after we take into account the quality of the swimmer’s 100 PBs.

Another difference becomes apparent when looking at the importance of each 100 split. For the women’s race, the 1st 100 split is the most important, with the fastest 400 swimmers generally establishing themselves among the leaders right away. However, for the men’s race, the 1st 100 split is the least important and the 2nd 100 split the most important, as the fastest 400 swimmers only begin to establish themselves at that point.

The very fastest men typically swam variations of a distance profile, with Sun Yang swimming an astonishing last 100 almost 2 seconds faster than any of the other elite 24.

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