Have you ever watched the Summer Olympics and wondered why most of the swimmers seem so tall? At 6’4”, 23-time Olympic medalist, swimmer Michael Phelps is a perfect example. Excelling in the sport of swimming takes hard work and trained technique. However, being tall gives a swimmer an added advantage. Using my expertise as a swimmer and a coach, I will explain why being tall gives swimmers an edge in the pool.
So, why are swimmers so tall? The best swimmers are tall because their height helps them swim the fastest. Having a length advantage – longer arms, legs, and torso, gives them more surface area to propel themselves forward with.
The swimmers you see on TV went through a natural selection of the sport, which indicates that taller swimmers are more likely to be faster.
When we say a person has a “swimmer’s body,” we are often referring to their height. There is a correlation between height and the swimmers you see standing on the podium. No matter what height you are, knowing about these advantages can help you be a more successful swimmer. Let’s look at the reasons why taller swimmers have an advantage:
Tall Swimmers Dominate Olympics
In 2016, the average height of an Olympic swimming finalist was 6’2” (188 cm for men, and 5’9”, 175 cm for women). That is 5 inches above an average male or female’s height. This is a recent statistic, but we have been watching tall swimmers dominate the sport for a long time. Tall bodies transfer to long bodies in the water, making it easier for them to make a swift move from one end of the pool to the other. Though there is a bit of variation, this is generally true for all four strokes: freestyle, butterfly, backstroke, and breaststroke (though breaststrokers’ height varies the most).
There are two significant parts to look at when understanding the advantages that tall swimmers have. The first is concerning the length of theirbody from head to toe. The second is a taller person usually has larger and longer hands and feet. When these variables work together in unison, they allow a taller swimmer to move faster through the water, as opposed to a shorter swimmer, where every other variable is the same.
This means if the technique, effort, and determination of two swimmers were identical, the taller swimmer of the two would win the race.
First, let’s discuss the advantage of body length. A man by the name ofFroude came up with a formula to allow us to understand why the taller swimmer is at an advantage in relation to his/her body length. I won’t bore you with all the scientific details, so here’s the premise: The faster a swimmer is moving, the longer his body needs to be to keep wave drag (the resistance against the swimmer) to a minimum. When moving at the same speed, a short swimmer will have to deal with a considerably higher amount of drag, causing him to require more strength and energy to keep up with his taller competitor. Therefore, the shorter swimmer will tire out more quickly.
Second, regarding how longer, larger hands and feet help taller swimmers move faster, let’s make a comparison. The arms and hands work like oars for the swimmer. When they are longer and larger, the swimmer can pull more water allowing for higher velocity. Additionally, the stroke rate can be lowered without loss of speed, which means the stroke is more efficient.
Big feet also offer an advantage. Have you ever swum with fins on? If you have, you know they make you go considerably faster. More surface area to kick with allows for more natural propulsion through the water. It’s as if people with longer legs and bigger feet are already fitted with fins!
Due to the advantages outlined above, it’s important to remember that height plays a large part in the natural selection of swimmers. Swimmers that we watch on TV are of the highest caliber in their sport, and at that point have made it through many rounds of natural selection. What you are witnessing are not only swimmers who have worked extremely hard in the sport, but swimmers who were also born with the genetics to give them an added edge.
A Field of Tall Swimming Greats
Obviously, having extra height gives swimmers an edge. It’s clear by how many tall swimmers we have seen stand on the Olympic podium. Matt Grevers, an American swimmer nicknamed the “Gentle Giant” for his height of 6’9” (205 cm), boasts 6 Olympic Gold medals. Many other swimmers of this caliber are also tall:
Michael Phelps, who is slightly shorter at 6’4” (193 cm), has won more Olympic medals than any other swimmer
Female swimmer Missy Franklin is a 6-time Olympic medalist standing at 6’2” (188 cm)
Leisel Jones, at 5’10” (178 cm), has won 9 Olympic medals
Being tall seems to come with the (swimming) territory. But it would be remiss to go around saying these swimmers are great because they are tall. Their grit and determination, along with countless hours in the water perfecting their technique, are where the credit is due.
Height doesn’t hurt, but possessing many positive character traits plays a greater role in allowing a swimmer to excel at the sport. Fortunately, all those traits can belong to shorter swimmers, too.
With Work, Short Swimmers Can be Successful
Yes, having tall parents will give you an advantage through no control of your own. However, even if you’re on the shorter end of things, don’t let that keep you from pursuing the sport of swimming. I’m pretty sure swimming great Janet Evans (5’5” or 165 cm) would probably tell you something similar.
Although the average swimmer height at the 2016 Olympics was 5 inches above the worldwide average, there were still many shorter swimmers who were able to compete. The shortest male participant stood at 5’6″ (168 cm), while the shortest female participant was 5’1″ (155 cm).
Let’s look at some factors (that have nothing to do with height) that make a person an excellent swimmer:
They focus on what they can control
They set goals and work towards them
They push through discomfort
They trust the training process
They say, “I can,” instead of, “I can’t”
They don’t make excuses
They show up early and stay late
If you compare a taller swimmer to a shorter swimmer, who are equal in every one of the qualities mentioned above, the taller swimmer will win the race. But, life doesn’t always work that way. There will always be someone with a greater amount of drive than someone else, so blaming any shortcomings (no pun intended) on a lack of height won’t do anyone any favors.
A3 Performer Justin Wrightis a talented 200 butterflier whose height is right around 5'8. Justin went into the 2018 US Nationals as a definite underdog. After his morning prelims swim, Justin was seated first going into finals. Easily, Justin was the smallest guy in his heat, but pulled out the race of his life and touched the wall first ahead of Olympic Medalists who were all taller than him!
Shorter swimmers have proven they can make a name for themselves in the quest for the top spots. Looking at the 2012 London Olympics, about 10% of male finalists were 5′ 10″ or shorter, and approximately 20% of the female finalists were 5′ 6″ or shorter. A small field, but not impossible.
A3 Performance Tip – Breaststrokers are known to be shorter thanthose who excel at the other three strokes. Because breaststroke is a short-axis stroke, there is more emphasis used through the middle of the hip (as opposed to the length of the body, more necessary in free and back) the length advantage decreases slightly. The individual medley and distance freestyle races are other great options for shorter swimmers.
For the rest of the population, being surrounded by talented swimmers who are on the shorter side is pretty common. When you get to know these swimmers, you’ll probably find them to be incredibly hard-working, with near perfect technique. Chances are the distances they choose to race in are longer ones, because the height advantage diminishes (relatively speaking) with each added length of the pool.
Just ‘being tall’ isn’t going to be enough for someone trying to reach champion-status. Being short isn’t a deal breaker in someone’s pursuit of becoming the next great swimmer either. It’s true that many of the best tower over their competition, but as in any sport, there are exceptions to the rule.
In fact, taller swimmers must overcome some challenges themselves. They have more body mass to pull through the water, while often relying on more power to make up for a lack of quick reaction time (an advantage for shorter swimmers).
The great thing about swimming is anyone can do it. As with any other sport, if you want to be competitive, you’re going to have to put in the work.
Can swimming make you taller?
No. It is generally a myth that swimming can make you taller. Any stretching out that might happen as you swim is only temporary and won’t be a noticeable change or make a difference in swimming speed.
Swimming is a low-impact sport that engages the entire body. When the muscles stretch out to resist the water, they “grow”, or lengthen. In swimming, gravity is taken away from the spine, allowing the spine to decompress and make the swimmer appear to be taller. Though swimming can elongate the body, there is no conclusive evidence to suggest that a lot of swimming will add inches to your frame. People may think the swimmers they see on TV have grown from their sport, when in reality there is no proven causation between the two. As previously stated, you are seeing tall swimmers on TV because they have a height advantage in the water…they didn’t actually grow from all those years of swimming practice.
Why are swimmers strong?
Swimming may not be able to make you taller, but it can make you stronger. As soon as you dive into the water, you are using every muscle group in your body. Additionally, it is a low-impact sport that uses equal parts upper and lower body without extra stress on the bones. Swimmers who spend long hours in the pool are continually developing a variety of muscles as they practice each of the four strokes. One of the tell-tale signs of a swimmer is their height, and another is those lean, tight muscles.