This article was originally published in the 2020 Spring Issue of SwimSwam Magazine.
I’ve heard it repeated over many years of swimming: “You never know, the 50’s just a crapshoot.” Everybody knows that the shortest events in swimming are the most volatile. In a race that takes under 30 seconds, a single turn hit long, a slow start, or a bad breakout can easily be the difference between first and second place.
However, this assumption always bugged me. Distance swimming races come with their own set of uncertainties. Pacing is more difficult. Any mistakes are magnified. Taking out a 100-meter race too fast usually means you pay the price for the only last 10 to 15 meters. Taking out a 400 too fast usually has more dire consequences. Additionally, shorter events allow for more reps in practice. Most sprinters can and will train repeat 50s and 100s off the blocks to simulate race conditions — 400s or 1500s are much more difficult to train this way.
Maybe some historical examples can help us here. There certainly have been several elite swimmers consistently great at the distance events. Grant Hackett, for example, was a paragon of consistency in distance swimming. He was the first swimmer to win the same event in four consecutive World Championships, winning the 1500-meter freestyle in 1998, 2001, 2003, and 2005 — not to mention his gold medals in the 2000 and 2004 Olympics. Another legendary distance swimmer, Janet Evans, holds the record for the most U.S. national titles in a single event, with 12 (!) victories in both the 400-meter freestyle and the 800-meter freestyle.
However, there are some counterexamples of inconsistent distance swimmers and consistent sprinters. Kate Ziegler famously broke Evans’s 1500 world record during an in-season meet at Mission Viejo but would never better her performance of 15:42.54. Erik Vendt’s 1500 freestyle performance during the 2008 Olympic Trials is another famous example. In prelims, he came close to his American record with a time of 14:50.24, but the next day in finals he faded to fourth, finishing with a disappointing 15:07.78 and off the Olympic roster in that event. His prelims time would have not only qualified him for the Olympic team but put him near the top in the world that year.
It doesn’t look as though we’ll be able to answer whether the 50 is more random than other events with anecdotal evidence alone. To settle the argument, I collected data from the three past Long Course World Championships and looked at two measures of consistency: time and placing. I would compare times and swimmer places from prelims to semifinals and from semifinals to finals. Using those time comparisons, I would compare across events to see where swimmers placed most differently and where times would fluctuate the most.
There were a couple of possible drawbacks with this methodology, mostly because swimmers clearly don’t treat prelims and finals the same. Top swimmers can and will often qualify for finals without all-out efforts in prelims. Longer events give swimmers more time to adjust their pacing if they look certain to qualify for finals. But sprinters have been known to back off their effort in prelims as well, so it was unclear whether this pacing effect would affect distance events more so than prelims.
Also, in the three World Championships meets I looked at (2011, 2013, and 2015), events 200 meters and shorter had three rounds — prelims, semis, and finals — and those 400 and over had only prelims and finals. In the figures, I directly compared the differences in the prelims and finals of the distance events with the differences in the semis and finals of the shorter events. The differences between prelims and semis of the shorter events were considered separately.
What I found was fairly surprising. The least volatile races, measured by the percentage time differences between rounds, were the 100s and 200s. Oddly, the 1500 and the 50, the longest and shortest distances, were the most volatile in terms of time percentage. Of course, in terms of absolute time differences, the 1500 was the greatest.
There are two main sources of inconsistency in racing: pacing strategy, and technique factors such as starts and turns. Inconsistencies in race pacing would make the largest difference in the 1500. Technique differences or environmental differences, such as wake from other swimmers, would make the most difference in the shortest races, the 50-meter races. The 100s and 200s were long enough for smaller factors not to determine the whole race, but long enough to pace consistently.
We can see this effect when looking at the place variation. This chart shows volatility measured by placing for each distance and round. Semifinals in general have higher volatility since swimmers can move all the way from first to 16th place rather than just first to eighth in finals.
The placing in the distance events — the 400 IM, 400 free, 800 free, and 1500 free — is slightly more volatile than in the 100s and 200s, but the difference is much less so, showing that some of the time differences are strategic. The time differences between places in the distance races make it safer not to use maximum effort for swimmers who are certain to move into the final heat. And again, the 50 is the most volatile distance.
In this case, common knowledge is validated by the data: The 50-meter races are the most volatile in terms of both time and placing. The least volatile races were the 100- and 200-meter distances, most likely because the races were short enough that they can be paced very consistently but long enough that small factors such as individual starts and turns didn’t have such an outsize effect.
One other factor that I did not consider was the field depth in the races. I would suspect that sprint and distance races would be about equal in how close the competitors were, but it is usually easier for swimmers to drop to shorter distances than move into longer ones.
All in all, the differences between distances is pretty slight, so I wouldn’t go choosing one distance over another just based on this analysis. But if you’re looking for consistent success, the 100- and 200-meter distances is where I would go.