Today’s swimming elite look vastly different than just a generation ago. It’s clear that today’s top-level swimmers are more powerful, and look physically stronger than ever before!

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But Why?

Swimmers today train much differently than swimmers a generation ago.

The shift away from high-volume training has placed a greater focus on higher-intensity training sessions geared towards producing race-specific outcomes.

If we were to rewind 100 years, the training methodology popularized by the world’s best coaches was to condition an athlete beyond reasonable doubt to be ready for competition. 100 kilometer training weeks were a common occurrence and strived for among swimming’s elite training centers.

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Today, coaches focus much more on high quality training, and there’s an increasing trend in out-of-water training regimens that improve performance in the water.

Swimmers and coaches have prioritized dryland training, plyometric work, and resistance training to be integral part of their workout routines.

It’s not that swimmers train more than they did before. The kind of training they do is different. Elite swimmers typically devote up to 30 hours per week to their training. In the past this 30-hour training week used to be 30-hours of pure swimming. Today this 30-hour block of time may be broken up into 20-hours of in-pool training, 4 hours in the weight room, and 6 hours of dryland.

The Maturing Elite Swimmer

The average age of swimmers at the top of the podium continues to mature with increased sponsorship opportunities and national governing bodies able to support athlete’s Olympic dreams later into their career.

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If we look back at Olympic history, in 1984 the average age of U.S. Olympic medalists in swimming was 21.2 for men, and 18.7 for women. In 2012, the average age of medalists was 26.2 (men) and 21.4 (women).

Developments in technique, nutrition, recovery and training opportunities for post-graduates have led to longer careers for many athletes. These improvements have helped to prevent injury and allow athletes to significantly extend their competitive years.

While there are outliers (Dara Torres anyone?), studies have shown that an athlete’s mid-20s are the sweet spot for athletic performance. This coupled with an increased focus on strength training is one of the reasons today’s top swimmers look vastly different than a generation ago.

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So What?

Swimmers are getting faster. There’s no question about it! The times swimmers post at every level from age-group to the Olympic Games are reflective of changes in training. If we rewind back to the age of the polyurethane super-suits, the media quickly played up the performance enhancing benefits of these now-illegal tech-suits.

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It took just a few years to wipe out nearly all the records set during the 2008-2009 suit era. It’s likely that every record set during that period will be erased within the next two Olympic cycles. Records were meant to be broken, so it’s fitting to see a new age of swimmers rise up leveraging new training regimens to push the limits of human performance.

Ledecky races in her signature event: 800m!

Will swimmers continue to get stronger: Yes!

Will swimmers eventually look like body builders? Probably not, but there’s no doubt that swimmers will continue to get stronger both in and out of the water to break records we never thought would be broken in our generation.

2 thoughts on “Dramatic Changes In Swimmers’ Physiques Over the Past Century

  1. What about height, especially among female swimmers? My opinion is that swimmers are much taller now, but I don’t know.

    1. You’re right Quincy. In London 2012 it was hard to find females under 6 feet, males under 6’3″ in the free and back finals.

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