In an earlier post, we wrote how changing your finger spacing a little bit can improve your speed slightly. You might ask yourself, does this small amount of finger spacing matter? What if better finger spacing can make a swimmer only 1% faster? Is that important?
To answer this question, we looked at actual results from high level meets for swimmers of different ages. We compared times for swimmers aged all the way from 8 to Olympic level.
Results are below. But first, here’s a hint for what we found. It’s the famous 100-meter butterfly final finish between Michael Phelps and Milorad Cavic:
For young swimmers, we looked at results from the Northern Virginia Swim League All Star meet, held August 5, 2017. The NVSL has more than 15,000 swimmers, on more than 100 teams.
First, we looked at speed differences for the top two finishers for the four strokes, by age. NVSL, like most summer leagues, splits swimmers into five age groups: 7-8, 9-10, 11-12, 13-14 and 15-18 years old.
We found that the average difference between first and second place finishers in the youngest NVSL group, the 8 and under, was 1.14% for boys and 7.06% for girls. Here are the details:
(Source for all NVSL results data is here.) Of course, races are not only for first or second place. We looked also at the speed difference for the top 8 swimmers specifically in the 50 free. We found that the average speed increase that it would take to move up one spot in the finals for the boys was a mere 0.60%. For the girls, it was 2.02%.
Here is the data:
Finishes were also tight for the oldest NVSL group, the 15-18 year olds. The average difference between first and second place for this group was only 1.45% for girls, and 2.0% for boys. Finally, for the 50 free, we found that a tiny speed difference of 0.47% would enable a girl to move up one spot in the finals. For boys, the corresponding number was 0.43%. In absolute numbers, the average gap between finishers was 0.13 seconds, and for boys it was about 0.10 seconds. This, by the way, is within the range of timer error.
Here is the data for the older swimmers:
The gap between finishers narrowed for college swimmers.
We looked at results from the 2016 Division 1 NCAA Championships, for various freestyle events, the 50, 100, 200 and 500 yard free.
We found that the average difference between the top two female swimmers in these events was only 0.64%. For men, it was 1.29%.
Then we looked at the gap between finishers in the finals for the 50 free. For men, to move up a spot in the finals required a speed increase of only 0.72%, or .13 seconds. For women, the average gap was a still-narrower 0.54%, or 0.10 seconds.
Our last test of the significance of a slight speed increase was for Olympic swimmers. For this, we looked again at freestyle results in the 2016 Olympics: the 50, 100, 200 and 400 meter events.
In the Olympics, the gap between top swimmers was even narrower than for all other groups.
The average gap between first and second place for men in each of the freestyle events was an astonishing 0.27%. For women, it was 0.60%.
For the 50 free, a speed increase of only 0.36% (0.09 seconds) would have moved a female swimmer up a spot. For men, the corresponding figure was 0.45% (0.1 seconds).
Details are below. Here's the source.
So, does a small change in hand position make a difference for race outcomes? The answer seems to be that it does. Especially at elite levels, the speed increase required to move up a place in the finals is very often less than one-half of one percent. It’s just possible that better hand position (or other simple things like a good night of sleep) can truly make a huge difference in your next race.