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How Big is the Gender Gap in Swimming?

October 17, 2011 by Katie

In the next few posts, I'll be sharing some data on the affect of age and gender on swim performance.  I reviewed data for Ironman triathletes, US Masters swimmers who completed the 1-Hour Postal Swim, and elite US Masters distance swimmers.

My (Incorrect) Assumptions:

  • Women have more body fat then men, and therefore better natural balance in the water.  A wetsuit should be a bigger advantage for a man than a woman.  If that's true, we should see the widest gender gap among triathletes.
  • All elite swimmers have great technique, so fitness level would be the biggest differentiator.  I would expect the age gap for elite swimmers to be wider than the gap for average swimmers.
  • Overall, I expected the gender gap to be minimal--5% at most.  Since technique is such a big part of swimming (I've seen estimates of 80% technique, 20% fitness), I didn't think men would have a major advantage.  My experience in small, local races backed up that assumption--the winners are all over the board in terms of age and gender.

Pace Comparison Chart

The following chart compares the average 100-meter swim pace for men and women in 3 categories:  Ironman Arizona 2009 Swim, USMS 1-Hour Postal Swim 2011, and USMS 1-Hour Postal Swim Record Holders.

Notes on the Data Sources

 

 

 

Ironman Arizona 2009

USMS 1-Hour Postal Swim 2011

 

Description

  The race includes a 2.4-mile open water swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile run. Participants swim as far as they can in 1 hour, in either a 25-meter or 25-yard pool.
 

# of Participants

  2,517 2,959
 

Wetsuits

  Nearly universal Not allowed
 

Distance

  2.4 miles Average 2.04 miles
 

Athlete Profile

  Participants are extremely fit, training 15-20 hours per week Wide range of fitness levels.  Record holders are broken out separately.
 

Conditions

  The course is a small, man-made lake.  Currents and waves are a non-issue.  All participants start together, so conditions are the same for everyone.  It's very crowded.  Lots of physical contact, and lots of drafting. 25-Yard or 25-Meter pool of choice.  It can be swum solo or with a group.  Maximum of 2 swimmers per lane, no circle swimming allowed.

Surprises

  • The gender gap for 1-Hour Postal Swim Record Holders is minimal until age 60-64.
  • For the 1-Hour Postal Swim participants, women slow down dramatically between age 50 and 65.  Is this related to Title IX?  Or do women lose fitness more rapidly than men at that age? If it's the latter, it seems like training could mitigate that.  The gap is much narrower among the Record Holders
  • In most age groups, the gender gap for triathletes is smaller than for swimmers.
  • Overall, the gender gap is bigger than I expected.

What do You Think?

Or better yet, what do you know?  Why is the gender gap so much smaller among elite swimmers?  Why do women slow down so much faster than men after age 50?  Why aren't wetsuits a bigger advantage for men than for women?

Next up:  How does aging affect performance in swimming? And do gender and age have the same impact on bking and running as they do on swimming?

 

Comments

I think we could probably

October 27, 2011 by kurt (not verified), 2 years 51 weeks ago
Comment: 384

I think we could probably also extrapolate that title IX is responsible for the economy as well There are so many confounders that your study, while noble, is impossible to interpret. I won the 40-44 postal this year but got my arse handed to me by a female in my age group (Zamanian). It is difficult to compare age groups in masters as the 18-29 group is generally, if they are like me, getting their careers going. 125 hours/week in a hosptial is not conducive to fast swimming. I am swimming about as fast at 44 as I was when I was 25 but am able to spend more time with it now. The male (me) to female (not me) margin of victory in 4 AZ open water swims this year was 12% but if you compare the wetsuits it is much closer. I think women, while having more fat, deposit it around hips and legs which may drop them more in the water. Also triathletes (male and female) are equally awful at swimming as evidenced by me getting out of the water first in two Ironmans. Given the lack of attention most of the give to the sport, I suspect the gender margin would be marginal with wetsuit wearers. Also, Kostich won the LaJolla Gatorman by a 3% margin but he is 41 and the winning female is 18.

Kurt, thanks so much for the

October 27, 2011 by Katie, 2 years 51 weeks ago
Comment: 385

Kurt, thanks so much for the comment.  Nice job on the postal swim, winning the Ironman swim, and all the other many successes I've seen your name on.

I agree with you that age is not much of a factor until at least 50-55.  I think you're right that time available for training is a bigger factor than the physiological effects of aging.  Did you see this graph?  It supports that theory, and it confirms your assesment of triathlon swim technique. 

I was surprised to see as big of a gap between men and women as there was.  In those small DCB events and my Masters team, I don't see much difference at all.  My biggest concern about the gender comparison is, "Will I slow down dramatically at age 50?"  As hard as I'm working, I should be pretty darn fast by then.  I'd hate to see it go up in a poof of smoke. 

I don't really think we know

October 27, 2011 by kurt (not verified), 2 years 51 weeks ago
Comment: 390

I don't really think we know how fast you can be in your 50s and beyond. Rowdy Gaines is 50 and can lay down some smoking times. The times you generally see in older people are not elite ex-Olympians and if they are, it is after a several year hiatus. Jim McConica until about 5 years ago regularly schooled me in his late 50s (he, however, did mega yards). I think consistency is the key and if you or anyone continue to do at least a modicum of regular training, I think your times won't have such a violent decline in your sunset years.

Thanks.  I think I can keep

October 28, 2011 by Katie, 2 years 51 weeks ago
Comment: 398

Thanks.  I think I can keep up a "modicum" of training for the rest of my life.  I'll hit mile 450 for 2011 today.  A day without swimming feels like a punishment. smiley

Thank you!  I got a ton of

October 19, 2011 by Katie, 3 years 3 days ago
Comment: 359

Thank you!  I got a ton of hits on this post, but no comments...Can't wait to see the Catalina data.  I'll be posting the age group comparisons later on today.  And, coming soon: run vs. bike vs. swim. 

Just wanted to say I think

October 19, 2011 by Evan (not verified), 3 years 3 days ago
Comment: 358

Just wanted to say I think it's cool that you did this. I'll post something shortly on gender differences in the Catalina Channel. I would have guessed, even before seeing the data, that there would still be a gender gap in Ironman & the USMS postal swims. Triathlon performance, I think, is still benefited by brute strength (esp. on the bike), which gives men an advantage. In swimming, I don't think the gender gap narrows completely until ultra-marathon distance (i.e., postal swims are still too short).
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