Increasing yardage may be the key to swimming faster as you age
If you’re new to Masters swimming, chances are your times can improve over the next few years regardless of your age. Consistent training hones your muscles and energy systems to optimize speed and endurance. Equally important, refining your stroke and incorporating essential techniques—from a lower head position and early vertical forearm to improved streamlining and submerged dolphin kicks—can give you novel ways to speed through the water.
Because of this, few sports offer oldster rookies as much room for competitive improvement as Masters swimming. But what happens when we’ve finally maxed out on all the low-hanging-fruit improvements in conditioning and technique?
“No matter what we do, aging does eventually get the better of us all,” says researcher Stephanie Lapierre, a doctoral student in exercise physiology at the University of Florida. “But we also know that masters athletes tend to age optimally and lack the health complications many inactive people suffer. So yes, decline is inevitable, but maybe there’s something that can be done about it.”
In a study published last October in the International Journal of Sports Medicine, Lapierre and her co-authors found that there’s a potent antidote to age for swimmers. Along with her graduate advisor, Hirofumi Tanaka, director of the Cardiovascular Aging Research Laboratory at the University of Texas, Lapierre analyzed burgeoning U.S. Masters Swimming data to tease out relationships between age, training volume, and meet performance.
Since 2007, 10,000 Masters swimmers have logged more than 10 billion yards into the USMS Go the Distance program. To gauge the honesty of self-reported yardage, the researchers observed eight unsuspecting Masters at practice, recorded their laps, then asked each how far they’d swum. The average difference between actual and reported distance differed by less than 50 yards. “Considering how many laps they swam each session,” Lapierre says, “we found this to be quite accurate.”
Many GTD participants also compete at the USMS Spring National Championship where race times are recorded in a separate USMS database. For simplicity’s sake, the researchers decided to focus on the most popular event at the national championship: the 50-yard freestyle. By feeding a swimmer’s age, times in the event, and GTD distances into a statistical Cuisinart, they hoped to shed light on several key questions.
For one, does advancing age affect how much Masters swimmers train? Studies of masters runners show progressive, age-related decline in training volume, and Lapierre expected to find the same trend in Masters swimmers. To her surprise, this was not the case. Perhaps because of swimming’s low injury rate, GTD swimmers throughout the lifespan average similar monthly totals.
They also wanted to see how training volume impacts speed—i.e., if you put in more work, are you likely to go faster? And if training volume does matter, does it matter more, less, or the same over your lifespan?
To answer these questions, they first conducted a cross-sectional analysis of 692 Masters swimmers aged 20 to 82. Between individuals, practice yardage and 50 times varied considerably, and as expected, the single biggest reason for slowing speed was age.
However, increased training volume served as a powerful counter to Father Time. “In the entire cross-sectional data analysis,” Tanaka says, “an increase of 10K training per month was associated with an improvement of 0.69 seconds in the 50 regardless of age.”
Sounds great, but keep in mind that cross-sectional studies are a snapshot of many individuals at a single point in time—useful in highlighting potential trends but unable to differentiate between cause and effect. Does extra training make swimmers faster? Or do faster swimmers, for whatever reason, just happen to practice more?
To shed light on causality, Lapierre et al. conducted a second, longitudinal analysis of 98 USMS swimmers who weren’t part of the earlier study. To qualify for inclusion, each must have participated at least three years in both GTD and the 50 freestyle at Spring Nationals. Among these swimmers, again aged 20 to 82, how would individual shifts in training volume affect their speed over time?
For younger Masters, raising, lowering, or maintaining training volume did not have a significant impact on how fast they could swim a 50. “But by middle age,” Tanaka says, “increasing training volume resulted in faster swimming times, and this effect became greater with advancing age.” Consider: At 55, adding 10K per month in training distance improved 50 times by an average of 0.3 percent; at 65, 0.8 percent; at 75, 1.1 percent; and at 85, nearly 1.5 percent.
Such improvements may seem modest, but consider that they are occurring despite advancing age being a major factor in times naturally declining. The takeaway: The best hope for maintaining or possibly improving meet performance after your mid-50s is to continually up the yardage the older you get.
“This is the reason our study is exciting,” Lapierre says. “Many people believe that when you age, you need to slow down and rest more. But maybe the key is becoming more physically active. Swimming is ideal exercise for aging individuals, and as we age into retirement, free time greatly increases. If we fill this time with extra swimming, maybe we can age even more optimally.”
- Technique and Training