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Old 21-08-2006, 03:11 PM   #1
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Age of peak performance

I've been thinking about the ages of top swimmers, and the implications compared to ages in other sports. A chap at my health club is in his early 30s and is hoping to compete at cycling in the 2012 Olympics, when he'll be in his late 30s. As I was only familiar with how old top swimmers tend to be, I was taken aback by this, and thought it sounded outrageous, but he told me that lots of cyclists do well in their 30s.

So I started to look for some info. In the Tour de France, from 1947 to 2002, there were the following numbers of winners of each age:
30 or over : 17
26 to 29 : 28
21 to 25 : 11
20 or under : 0

The average age of winners is 28.

So I then set about finding some stats on ages of swimmers, and immediately found this very interesting article:
http://www.findarticles.com/p/articl...v22/ai_6995720

It seems that in most sports, older athletes do better the longer the distance, e.g. in athletics the average age is 22 for sprinters, 24 for 800/1500, and 27 for 5km+.

But for swimming they found that the average age was 20 for men and 18 for women, regardless of distance.

Also, apparently the average ages have stayed constant over time.

They concluded:
Quote:
"the brute strength and speed events peak relatively early," compared to those requiring more diverse cognitive and motor skills. So while the best swimmers, sprinters and jumpers are usually in their late teens or early 20s, "the attributes of good golfers and baseball players have more to do with precise motor control that may require many years to develop."
Well, so much for swimming being a sport where technique is highly important compared to other sports. If technique is really important compared to running, say, then surely the average age of olympic swimming competitors should be older than that of olympic running competitors in events of similar duration? The average age of 24 for 800m/1500m runners would correspond to swimming 200m/400m, in terms of duration, yet it seems the swimmers are instead considerably younger.

This isn't to say that technique isn't important in swimming, but I do believe that there are a sufficient number of people alive who either naturally have sufficient feel for the water, or are good enough at applying what they're taught, that they can relatively quickly (i.e. by their late teens) achieve a standard of technique that is broadly comparable to that of other top swimmers. From then on, I can only conclude that as the article says, it must be brute force and speed that is the main differentiator.
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Old 21-08-2006, 06:10 PM   #2
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Swimming is a difficult sport to committ to i think which is the real problem. The hours spent in the pool, the early mornings and late evenings training. when you are 18 plus you want to be going out and have to choose between swimming or a social life. atleast with distance running etc. you can get out and run on the road which is free. I think that is one of the main limiting factors to participation.
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Old 22-08-2006, 10:25 AM   #3
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and money
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Old 22-08-2006, 11:16 AM   #4
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Originally Posted by Baker View Post
and money
If swimmers have to work as well as train because of lack of funding then less training is done. Some swimmers get by to a certain extent with the good-will of others; providing training facilities and free coaching plus a very understanding boss who will allow time off work to compete over the period of a week.
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Old 22-08-2006, 11:22 AM   #5
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I hesitate to add comment due to my lack of knowledge of swimming. But gymnastics, where technique is vital, has what I guess would be an average "peak" age even younger than swimming. Could flexibility be a major factor?
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Old 22-08-2006, 11:27 AM   #6
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The other thing I've been wondering is, how big is the athletics scene for young kids compared to swimming? I don't recall there being kids at my school who went off to athletics training sessions.

There seem to be British Athletics rankings here:
http://www.athleticsdata.com/rankings/

E.g. if we look at age "under 15" males doing the 1500m:
http://www.athleticsdata.com/ranking...roup=U15&sex=M
1st is 4:07, 8th is 4:16

But if we look at V35, which seems to be 35-39 year olds:
http://www.athleticsdata.com/ranking...roup=V35&sex=M
1st is 3:55, 8th is 4:07

So for mens 1500m running, over 35s are faster than under 15s.

By comparison, for mens 400m swimming, in 2005:
Under 15 - 1st 4:07, 8th 4:14
35-39 - 1st 4:17, 8th 4:36

Here the situation is the complete opposite to 1500m running.

I agree with Kaci's point, but it just seems that there must be some other issues as well to account for such a major difference in performance with age.
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Old 22-08-2006, 11:42 AM   #7
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Pete View Post
If swimmers have to work as well as train because of lack of funding then less training is done.
Are swimmers less well funded than athletes and cyclists? I honestly have no idea, it's a genuine question.

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Originally Posted by Brick View Post
I hesitate to add comment due to my lack of knowledge of swimming. But gymnastics, where technique is vital, has what I guess would be an average "peak" age even younger than swimming. Could flexibility be a major factor?
I think it's an excellent point, and loss of flexibility may well be a major issue in swimming as we get older. I can see it being a fairly subtle effect, where a swimmer doesn't quite manage to keep their body and limbs as streamlined in the water as they did when younger.
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Old 22-08-2006, 12:45 PM   #8
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I'm sure the research is good but can it really be used to draw any valid conclusions about the age at which a swimmer peaks physically in practice even in theory? Notwithstanding the external influences that have already been mentioned, you can prove just about anything with statistics. It depends where you source your data and how you present it.

For example (and this is only really very rough because the information is easily accessible and I haven't even bothered to check the ages of the swimmers or even their years of birth if they are under their names) looking at the LEN top 10 rankings, for ladies -

In the 50 sprints 2.5 % swimmers were born 1988 or later (ie 18 or younger ish)
In the 100s 7.5 % were born 1988 or later
In the 200s 22 % were born 1988 or later and
in the 400 + events 22.5 % were born 1988 or later

So if you wanted to write a report on age of peak performance based on the above findings one might say -
  • In none of the events was the peak age 18 or younger
  • The shorter the distance the older the peak age
This contradicts the findings of the report you referred to.

So why is it different?

Could be -
  • The article you refer to compared two sets of data and even the most recent set finished in 1980 and things are now different (quite possible)
  • Female Olympic Gold medallists peak at a younger age than top 10 European swimmers (seems highly improbable)
  • Any number of other reasons.
The only real way to find the actual peak age for performers would be to study a large number of highly trained individuals and monitor when in their lives their best ever performance was, their performances in the lead up to it and their decline. I would hazard a guess though that even this would not show what "could have been" their peak age for performance but it would give a better idea.

I find it hard to believe though that for swimming it would be the same age for all events and this age would be 18 for females and 20 for males.
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Old 22-08-2006, 04:10 PM   #9
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I haven't checked the exact facts but from recollection the LTAD was originally based on a number of different sports and the results were found to be similar. i.e. Something like 10000 hours of training to become proficient to an international level. Given that swimming is a low impact sport and therefore athletes can train for longer in water than say on a track, you would expect swimmers to reach a high level at an earlier age than track athletes.
Maybe this is why gymnasts have to start so early in life. Females need to get their hours in before maturation.
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Old 22-08-2006, 05:40 PM   #10
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I would disagree with the idea that most top level (international) swimmers peak in their late teens or early twenties. This may have been true up until 1980, but swimming is completely different now. It's actually possible to make a living as a swimmer and that is why we are now seeing swimmers carry on at the highest level well into their 30s.

I just did a quick comparison using the Athens Olympics. In individual events the average age of the male competitors was just over 22 and for females just under 22, assuming 5 swimmers in each final had already celebrated their Birthday that year (which seems reasonable).

Highest average age was mens 50 free at 26.375, lowest was womens 400 IM at 19.5.

Average age for 50m events was 25, for 100m events 23, for 200m events 21.25 and for 400m events 20.25. Then goes back up to 21.75 for the 800/1500.

This certainly appears to contradict the suggestion that sprinters peak younger, which is what I expected.
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Old 22-08-2006, 09:12 PM   #11
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Taxiandbank View Post
I haven't checked the exact facts but from recollection the LTAD was originally based on a number of different sports and the results were found to be similar. i.e. Something like 10000 hours of training to become proficient to an international level. Given that swimming is a low impact sport and therefore athletes can train for longer in water than say on a track, you would expect swimmers to reach a high level at an earlier age than track athletes.
Maybe this is why gymnasts have to start so early in life. Females need to get their hours in before maturation.
We used to "know" that the world was flat.
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Old 22-08-2006, 09:23 PM   #12
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Taxiandbank
Given that swimming is a low impact sport and therefore athletes can train for longer in water than say on a track, you would expect swimmers to reach a high level at an earlier age than track athletes.
This is another issue I've thought about a fair bit - why is it that swimmers need to spend so many hours training, as seems to be accepted is the case. Physiologically, if it's beneficial for swimming to do lots of low intensity work, it ought to be beneficial for other sports as well. Your point about impact level is one I've thought about before, i.e. perhaps it isn't that athletes in other sports wouldn't benefit from spending more hours training, but more that they simply can't spend more hours training because of the impact on their bodies. I do like this argument, but then if we consider cyclists, why can't they usefully spend the same number of hours training as swimmers? Perhaps they can, and perhaps we'd have some outstanding young cyclists if they trained as much at a young age as our swimmers do.
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Old 23-08-2006, 12:41 AM   #13
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- why is it that swimmers need to spend so many hours training, as seems to be accepted is the case..
In short - it's because swimming takes place in a fluid (a completely foreign environment for the human body) and movement in that fluid is highly technique dependent; whereas cycling, running etc all take place in a gas (a completely common environment for the human body having evolved almost exclusively in it over the past x thousand years) and technique, albeit still important, is not as important as in swimming.
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Old 23-08-2006, 05:45 PM   #14
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In short - it's because swimming takes place in a fluid (a completely foreign environment for the human body) and movement in that fluid is highly technique dependent; whereas cycling, running etc all take place in a gas (a completely common environment for the human body having evolved almost exclusively in it over the past x thousand years) and technique, albeit still important, is not as important as in swimming.
I can see that the difference between moving in a fluid vs a gas creates the potential for a difference in the training needed, but I don't think this alone tells us the nature of what that difference might be.

If we suppose the difference is, as you suggest, that it will take a lot of hours of training to adapt to the fluid environment, this doesn't explain everything because wouldn't we then expect swimmers to peak at an older age than runners, say, due to it taking them longer to adapt to the alien environment? Also, I'm not convinced that cycling isn't roughly as alien as swimming, in evolutionary terms. The type of force exerted in cycling has a lot in common with swimming, in terms of the continuous resistance to movement that is provided. In this sense cycling could be argued to have more in common with swimming than running.

However, it may simply be that cycling training methods are lagging behind swimming training methods, and it might be possible to produce top cyclists younger if they spent the same number of hours training at a young age as swimmers do.

The real driver in terms of hours of training per week needed to get to the top is the profile of improvement with hours, because it isn't the absolute level of performance that is important, it's the relative level of performance compared to other competitors. So, it could be possible to have a situation where different sports require different hours per week purely because it perpetuates itself, where that is what the current top people do, so that is what you need to do to compete. But then someone else might come along and decide that they can do better if they do more hours per week, so natural competition ought to mean that each sport ends up with people doing a number of hours per week that ensures there are drastically diminishing returns in doing more than that.

The only way I can rationalise all this is for one of the following to be true:
- Cyclists could reach peak performance younger if they trained more hours per week
- Cyclists cannot train more hours per week than they currently do, due to some physiologically limiting reason
- Swimmers could do less training per week, and would then peak at older ages. I couldn't say whether this would improve or worsen the level of peak performance.
- There may well be other things that would explain it all that I can't think of right now.
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Old 24-08-2006, 07:58 AM   #15
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Just a couple of points based on this very interesting discussion. As a triathlon coach I feel I can speak for both runners, cyclist and swimmers.

First I do not agree that cycling coaching lags behind swimming, personally I feel the opposite is the case. If you look at the results of cycling in the last 4-6 years you will see that GB is now the top nation in cycling in the world, and will account for the majority of our gold medals in the next two Olympics. I could rant and rave about 14 year old swimmers doing 60000m a week to swim 100s and 200s - but that may be for another thread!

In terms of age related issues, the impact of running on a young childs body will stop them from training to the extent swimmers can (without going into technical details excess stress can stop the growth of bone in the "bone growth" areas), it is correct to point out that Gymnasts start even earlier but there has been a lot of bad press about this in the past re stunted growth in girls (which is in fact an advantage - cruel irony), however the men are much older given the need for strength in their events (rings being the obvious one).

In terms of cycling, young kids do have a problem with training venues, top cyclists (even track cyclists) put in a lot of hours on the road - not a safe place for adults never mind children, hence historically the best (road) cyclists tend to come from warm countries with lots of daylight, mountains and little traffic. Cycling is not as damaging to the bone structure of kids but if like me you may have to do 6 hour rides in training for Ironman events its not your legs that end up sore!!!

Finally, one other issue that has not been talked about is ethnic origin. For example in East Africa very young kids run massive distances, but their body types are long levers, muscular lags and little body weight. Ever noticed that most swimmers are white? Maybe white athletes have higher fat/muscle ratio or a more balanced distribution which gives a better body position (up until a few years ago I always thought GB male swimmers were a bit "podgy"). The few black swimmers I have known have all been sprinters - which ties up with the dominance of black athletes in athletic sprint events.
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