5 Reasons why Masters Swimming Keeps Getting Faster!

Photo Courtesy: Rick Walker

By Dr. G. John Mullen, DPT, CSCS – President COR – Sports Training and Physical Therapy

A few years back, I had the opportunity to compete at Masters Nationals in Santa Clara, CA. I had been training, a blistering 3 hours a week split up into ~3-4 practices. I was ready for a great Masters race, hoping to compete for the title, thinking to be a former Division I swimmer lead me to victory. This wasn’t the case. Little did I know, I would have a competitor smash the Masters World Record with an amazing 18-second 50-yard freestyle! We could debate whether Nathan Adrian should compete in the Masters competition and if his time should be valid, but even if Adrian didn’t compete, I would have still been beaten by about 8 other competitive Masters swimmers. As the Masters World Championships recently concluded, it is interesting to ask:

When did Masters Swimming get so fast?

Now, my personal story is purely anecdotal, but a recent study found significant progression in all Masters Swimming age-groups in the 100-m free (Akkari 2015). In this study, older age groups demonstrated greater improvements in swimming times over the years examined. In general, older athletes and women had greater slopes of improvement in performance during that time.

The study concluded:

“[w]e observed significant improvements in the performance of Masters athletes from 1975 to present day in most age groups. The slopes of sprint performance increase were greater than those of young elite athletes. We hypothesized that with the ever increasing participation of older athletes, the level of competition would rise, acting as an additional catalyst for improvements in athletic performance that might not be present in that of elite competition where participation has already been extremely high. It is indisputable that the popularity of and participation in Masters athletic events have increased steadily. Evidence of increased participation of older athletes is well documented in endurance events.”

This study clearly suggests more participants causes greater improvement. However, I think there are other reasons for the overall improvement in Masters Swimmers. Here are 5 Reasons why Masters Swimming Keeps Getting Faster!

5 Reasons why Masters Swimming Keeps Getting Faster!

  1. More Participants: Like the study concluded, Masters athlete participation is increasing. Clearly, the more swimmers within a sport increase the likelihood of improved competition. The more participants within the sport increase the popularity and results in already elite (former college and Olympic swimmers) returning to the sport. This increases the performance of masters swimmers and helps them get faster. Think of all the former Olympians involved in Masters swimming, Rowdy Gaines, Matt Biondi, and much more are still setting records!

  2. Greater Competition: More participants, greater competition, more competition, faster swimming. I think this is a simple formula, which all in the sports community understand. This alteration has to lead to improved swimming for masters swimmers. Does anyone really think to have only one great swimmer facilities greatness? Like Magic vs. Bird, competitions sparks performance.

  3. Improved Nutrition: Poor nutrition is something many swimmers, especially masters swimmers had problems with. Think of all the people who thought, well I’m swimming later today, why do I need to worry about what I eat? Sure, this may be the case for those managing their calories, but for performance consideration, Masters swimmers are finding out how pre- and post-workout nutrition enhance performance. Also, think of the show Mad Men and the lifestyle they lead, booze at work, smoking in the office, neither of these fosters swimming.

  4. Improved Dryland: Many masters swimmers didn’t perform dryland previously. Now, I get the majority of emails and purchases of dryland for swimmers from Masters Swimmers. This is why I had a seminar at COR regarding Dryland for Masters swimmers. This community is realizing the importance of strength and how aging negatively influences muscle, making strength training imperative for performance improvements.

  5. Improved Training: Swimming is transitioning from slow steady swimming to higher intensity swimming. Masters swimmers used to simply swim for 30 minutes or an hour straight. Now, Masters swimmers are improving their training, performing shorter distances, greater sprints, and other avenues. This swimming training likely transfer more to pool events, helping increase performance.

Why do you think Masters swimming is getting faster? Or do you think I’m just a sore loser for getting based at a Masters meet without training hard enough 🙂

Reference:

  1. Akkari A, Machin D, Tanaka H. Greater progression of athletic performance in older Masters athletes. Age Ageing. 2015 Jul;44(4):683-6. doi: 10.1093/ageing/afv023. Epub 2015 Mar 8.

All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff. All swimming and dryland training and instruction should be performed under the supervision of a qualified coach or instructor, and in circumstances that ensure the safety of participants.

19 Comments

19 comments

  1. Cin-Dee Kole Ong

    Good article. Just started masters swimming a year ago and found that the winning times in Budapest were ultra competitive.

  2. avatar
    Leander

    1. There must be a connection between how fast you swam when you were younger and how fast you swam when you are older. Swimming became much faster between 1970 and 1985, as swimmers started wearing goggles, which meant that practices became much longer and harder. As this group of swimmers ages up, masters’ times will drop significantly too.

    2. Masters swimmers are almost certainly training more seriously today than similarly aged masters swimmers used to train. This is related to the author’s points 3, 4 and 5.

    3. Tech suits have some impact on times; masters swimmers were probably swimming in rather baggy nylon suits in the 1970s and in rather modest (not skin tight) lycra suits for the 1980s.

    4. PEDs – some masters swimmers are probably taking testosterone or other anti-aging supplements. Whether these are unlawful PEDs is a different question as some doctors prescribe testosterone and other supplements to treat aging, which means they may qualify as TUEs.

    • avatar
      cynthia curran

      The top women masters swimmers like Pipes-Nelson and Laura Val entered masters swimming in their 30’s compared to some of the older champs which didn’t swim as kids and started later. For women, the 30’s is a good period to start masters swimming after age group which means you keep your flexibility better with age. Men swimmers seem to get away with entering the sport again in their 40’s and 50’s and swimming good times compared to the women swimmers that seem to do better in the sport if they started swimming competitively again in their 30’s like Laura Val and others did.

  3. Martin Klein

    Good article.Mastersswimming is getting more popular these days. 😊

  4. Neil Morgan

    Participation, swimmers who were just quicker in regular competition moving up to masters, and some records which have a lot of room for improvement. Progress will slow down as top swimmers move through all of the age groups, as long as they live long enough.

  5. Brett Davies

    Yes I totally agree with you the transformation swimming both technically and the difference in training methods and add to that more gym work and attention to your nutrition makes us all swim faster even in our older age . I myself just by changing my stroke technique have managed to make a huge improvement in my results.

  6. avatar
    Tony Goodwin

    John, I value your comments greatly. I just finished Budapest with some success and have been helped by your advice and that of ex- Olympians. I am in the gym 6 days a week working on your programs(at age 80 with modifications) and swim 3 times about 2km with bursts of USRPT. My key philosophy is that I am not obsessive but I do love the exercise and the resulting good health, coupled with the motivation to succeed and keep learning. Masters is also a great maker of friendships.

  7. avatar
    Pam Reynecke

    I returned to swimming as a Master 2 years ago after a 40 year break. So naturally my times now are a lot slower than when i was a teenager. But if I take my times from when I started 2 years ago to now, having just returned from Budapest I have improved by about 10%. In Budapest I took 13 seconds off my 200Free time that I had done at our Nationals in South Africa in March, 9 seconds off 200Back, 6 seconds off 100Free, and 3 seconds off both 50 Free and Back. I train up to 5 x week for an hour, mainly USRPT training and then 2 hours per week with a strength training coach. Have lost 10kgs in the last year.

  8. avatar

    Another important factor contributing to better times is improved technique coaching, picking up lessons coaches have developed from age group, high school and college swimming. My first few years included my coach spotting a number of habits that back when I was younger were acceptable, such as head position and body rotation. I’ve also watch a number of swimmers in my Masters group progress from the slow lanes up to to speedy ones. And while training itself is a contributing factor, most practices included drills for better technique, new tools such as hand paddles or even tennis balls that teach better hand position.

  9. avatar
    Jeroen Peters

    I am sure that a greater amount of leisure time contributes to faster times. With shorter working weeks compared to say 40 years ago and more disposable income, we have more opportunity and time for training in the pool as well as cross training.

  10. avatar
    Laura Knapp

    One more contributing factor: For USA women, I think that Title IX, implemented in the early 70’s, caused women to swim longer. This is when scholarships for women started and woman began swimming in their college years as opposed to stopping before college. Remember when it used to be said that girls ‘peaked’ at 16 yrs old?

  11. avatar
    Brandon Carter

    All your points make sense with each being undoubtedly true. Perhaps you intended to limit the number of factors you spoke of to five but I am surprised that you didn’t mention PEDs even as they relate to nutritional supplements. Even younger swimmers can be tempted by that magic elixir. In a sport that has no testing (and I’d never advocate for such a thing) that is a contributing factor, like it or not. Who knows how widespread… still, I think it’d be naive to exclude that from a really well worded article!

    • avatar
      Gman

      There’s no doubt that there are Masters swimmers who take testosterone and other PEDs that are prescribed for them. Some of them are near the top of the rankings and even break records, but I don’t believe that it’s typical of record breakers. I personally have broken many Masters WRs and have never taken PEDs in any form, nor am I on ANY prescription meds. If other swimmers are taking PEDs, they’re still not beating me in my best events. Based on my own success and what I know about the character of the other swimmers I count as friends, I think the vast majority of the top performers are clean. That said, I’d like to see drug testing and some clear guidelines instituted. Other Masters sports do it.

  12. avatar
    Guppy

    National Record. (No WRs for yards.) I believe the author placed 12th with a 21.93. Very respectable time!

  13. avatar
    Gman

    First, I think you have to break the spectrum of Masters Swimming into smaller segments because the improvement is not uniform across the age groups. For the younger age groups, elite swimmers are staying in the sport far longer than before. For the middle age groups, I believe the main reason for faster times is improved technique. The younger age groups (below 60) fair better than the oldest because the best swimmers are trying to stay current as technique evolves. It seems that the swimmers on the older end of the age spectrum are less open to change, truly old school. The times for those age groups aren’t improving nearly as fast as younger age groups because they are attached to using the technique they originally learned in the 50’s and 60’s. The dividing line may be technological: those who are fluent in the internet/digital world have exposure to far more information. If you believe there is one “right way” and you cling to it, you are certain to be left behind.

Author: G. John Mullen

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Dr. G. John Mullen received his Doctorate in Physical Therapy from the University of Southern California and a Bachelor of Science of Health from Purdue University. He is the owner of COR (www.trainingcor.com), strength and conditioning consultant, creator of the Swimmer's Shoulder System (http://www.corswimmershoulder.com), Dryland for Swimmers (http://www.drylandforswimmers.com), and is chief editor of Swimming Science (www.swimmingscience.net) and the Swimming Science Research Review.

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