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 …read more

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Is Russia the New East Germany?

Athletics Doping Russia

A few days ago a bombshell exploded in the sporting world. On Wednesday, Dec. 3, 2014, German broadcaster ARD aired a segment called “Top-secret Doping Dossier: How Russia produces it’s Winners”. It included a tremendous amount of evidence and on-camera testimony from Russian officials, coaches and athletes on massive and systemic doping, coverups and corruption that instantly reminds one of East Germany’s state sponsored doping program called State Plan 14.25.

Vitaliy Stepanov , a former employee of the Russian Anti-Doping Agency summed up the present philosophy in Russain sports as follows, “You cannot achieve the results that you are getting, at least in Russia, without doping. You must dope. That’s how it is done in Russia. The officials and coaches clearly say by using natural ability you can only do so well. To get medals you need help. And the help is doping, prohibited substances”

The nature of the ARD broadcasted evidence certainly indicates a comprehensive and systemic program of doping and coverups, with 6 sports named (track and field, swimming, cycling, biathlon, weightlifting, cross country skiing).

  • in a frightening echo of East Germany, the state pushes drugs on its athletes, saying it is the only way to success. One currently suspended world class runner said this to the camera, “That is hammered into the coaches and the coaches hammer it into the athletes. The athletes, therefore, do not think when they are taking banned drugs that they are doing something wrong”.
  • on-camera voluntary confessions of doping by elite athletes, plus a startling undercover video of drug use by an Olympic champion runner.
  • drugs are available from the system, with the head of the national doping test laboratory accused of selling banned substances, and the head of the Russian federation’s medical department accused of supplying doping products in exchange for 5% of the athlete’s earnings
  • Russian …read more
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Swimming By the Numbers: Women’s Elite 400 Freestyle Strategies

camille muffat

This is a continuation of my series on how the elite swim various races. In previous posts, I’ve analyzed all of the 200 races.

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 59.0 as one of their 100 splits, and their 100 PB is 55.0, then their Offset for that split is 4.0. You’ll soon see why this concept is useful.

Women’s 400 Freestyle Analysis

When analyzing the 200 Freestyle race (see here), I came across an interesting trend involving strategies. Based on the swimmer’s apparent tendency towards sprint or distance (or mixture of the two), a clear race profile emerges. The following chart shows actual data from the 200 Freestyle analysis. I added Katie Ledecky’s race profile, as she represents an extreme version of an elite distance-oriented swimmer.

With the 400 being twice as long, we can expect to see most swimmers with distance profiles.

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 two …read more

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Open or Closed Fingers? A Review

SONY DSC

Recently the question of closed versus open fingers came up on the Facebook Swim Coaches group (what an incredible collection of coaching minds!), and it amazed me as to the diversity of opinion on what I thought was more or less a closed question. So I went looking to not only find out the present state of the research, but also to see what coaches and athletes were thinking. Here’s just a sampling.

Most said keep the fingers and thumb relaxed and in a natural position. The next theme involved variations on fingers tightly together so no water would ‘slip’ through. And many specified exact finger spacings or a small range of spacings. Here are some other comments from coaches.

  • thumb should be at 90° with four tight fingers
  • thumb anywhere but 90°
  • cup your hand so that the water doesn’t ‘spill’ over the sides
  • finger spacing should be with width of your fingers
  • swimmers should wear finger spacing gloves to train the fingers
  • (and my favourite) open fingers mean the palm of the hand will move through the water more quickly, so attention has to be paid to moving the fingers faster to catch up

The general idea is that a large number of swim sites discuss the issue but simplify the scientific study results horribly, resulting in incorrect generalizations and bad explanations. As a result, far too many professional coaches and swimmers are still confused about optimal finger spacing.

The Physics

So let’s start with a basic understanding of the problem, and then we’ll get to the studies that have been done.

Most of the problems come from a misunderstanding of how fluid dynamics work. At the simplest level, there are 3 factors affecting the drag coefficient of the hand (roughly equating to the effective surface area of the hand).