Swimming Sprints Does Not Translate

Swimming is unique compared to other cardio sports like running and cycling. Researchers looked at how sprints impacted swimmers and their performance times, compared to other sports.

People often ask the question of which form of cardio is the best for performance in their sport or for health. The answer is pretty simple, the best one is the one you find to be the most fun, because that’s the one you’ll get up and go do even when you aren’t motivated to exercise. You also need to consider which you may want to compete in, or if one is similar to your sport. For example, running may be a more important cardio option for a soccer player, since running itself is a big part of a soccer game. After these considerations, there are important differences between swimming, cycling, and running that both athletes and coaches should take into account.

One area that needed study specifically for swimming was the correlation and benefits of training or testing an athlete’s repeated sprint ability (RSA). This had already been looked at in both running and cycling and the results were similar to each other, but swimming has many unique aspects that require further study. Many athletes and coaches use repeated short sprints to improve fitness, but is it a good use of training time?

For runners and cyclists RSA testing does seem to relate to performance in short and long distance efforts. A recent study by the Journal of Strength and Conditioning sought to determine if the same is true for swimming. They performed an RSA test of 8 bouts of 15m swimming, a 100m swim to test their anaerobic ability, and a 2,000m swim to test their aerobic ability. Swimming did prove to have many unique features of which athletes and coaches need to be aware.

Through the course of the RSA test, the performance of the athletes dropped by about 5%. This is about the same as for runners and cyclists. However, that’s where the similarities end. Both the ending heart rate and blood lactate levels were lower for swimmers than they were for other endurance athletes. This may mean that for those cross training for other sports, swimming may have reduced cardiovascular benefits, especially for people who are not strong swimmers (although swimming has numerous other benefits, such as a stronger upper body component that need to be considered).

Although there was a weak relationship between the RSA of the athletes and the 2000m performance, there was no significant connection between RSA and either the 100m or the 2000m, which is unique to swimming. There was also a strong correlation between the 100m and the 2000m, which was also only shown for swimmers.

This study shows that RSA is a unique quality for swimmers, and is a poor measurement for coaches looking to test the abilities of their athletes outside of the RSA itself. Swimming coaches should take note not to follow in the footsteps of other cardio sports when training their athletes. Swimming has many unique requirements that need study in their own right.

Another question this study brings up is the significance of crossover to other sports. If RSA in swimming doesn’t predict ability in longer swimming events, is it a good method of training cardio for other sports entirely? Would the other cardio methods be useful when either testing or training RSA to develop cardiovascular power for other sports? The results here would seem to cast some doubt on thinking they would.


1. Yoav Mechel, et. al., “The Relationship Between Short- and Long-Distance Swimming Performance and Repeated Sprint Ability,” Journal of Strength & Conditioning, 26:12 (2012)

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