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Characteristics and Challenges of Open-Water Swimming Performance: A Review

Roberto Baldassarre, Marco Bonifazi, Paola Zamparo, and Maria Francesca Piacentini

Context: Although the popularity of open-water swimming (OWS) events has significantly increased in the last decades, specific studies regarding performance of elite or age-group athletes in these events are scarce. Purpose: To analyze the existing literature on OWS. Methods: Relevant literature was located via computer-generated citations. During August 2016, online computer searches on PubMed and Scopus databases were conducted to locate published research. Results: The number of participants in ultraendurance swimming events has substantially increased in the last 10 y. In elite athletes there is a higher overall competitive level of women than of men. The body composition of female athletes (different percentage and distribution of fat tissue) shows several advantages (more buoyancy and less drag) in aquatic conditions that determine the small difference between males and females. The main physiological characteristics of open-water swimmers (OW swimmers) are the ability to swim at high percentage of V ˙ O 2 max  (80–90%) for many hours. Furthermore, to sustain high velocity for many hours, endurance swimmers need a high propelling efficiency and a low energy cost. Conclusion: Open-water races may be characterized by extreme environmental conditions (water temperature, tides, currents, and waves) that have an overall impact on performance, influencing tactics and pacing. Future studies are needed to study OWS in both training and competition.

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Pacing and Hazard Score of Elite Open Water Swimmers During a 5-km Indoor Pool Race

Roberto Baldassarre, Cristian Ieno, Marco Bonifazi, and Maria Francesca Piacentini

Purpose: The sensation of fatigue experienced at a certain point of the race is an important factor in the regulation of pacing. The rating of perceived exertion (RPE) is considered one of the main mediators utilized by athletes to modify pacing. The aim was to analyze the relationship between pacing and RPE of elite open water swimmers during national indoor pool championships. Methods: A total of 17 elite open water swimmers (males, n = 9; females, n = 8) agreed to provide RPE every 500 m during the finals of the national championships 5-km indoor pool race. Time splits, stroke rate, and RPE were collected every 500 m. The Hazard score was calculated by multiplying the momentary RPE by the remaining fraction of the race. Athletes were placed in one of two categories: medalists or nonmedalists. For all variables, separate mixed analysis of variances (P ≤ .05) with repeated measures were used considering the splits (ie, every 500 m) as within-subjects factor and the groups (ie, medalists and nonmedalists) as between-subjects factor. Results: Average swimming speed showed a significant main effect for split for both males and females (P < .001). A significant interaction was observed between average swimming speed and groups for females (P = .032). RPE increased in both groups (P < .001) with no difference observed between groups. However, the female nonmedalists showed a disproportionate nonlinear increase in RPE (5.20 [2.31]) halfway through the event that corresponded to the point where they started significantly decreasing speed. Conclusions: The results of the present study show different pacing strategies adopted by medalists and nonmedalists despite a similar RPE.

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The Road to Rio: A Brief Report of Training-Load Distribution of Open-Water Swimmers During the Olympic Season

Roberto Baldassarre, Marco Bonifazi, Romain Meeusen, and Maria Francesca Piacentini

Purpose: The 10-km open-water swimming race is an endurance event that takes place in lakes, rivers, or sea and has been an Olympic event since 2008. The aim of the present brief report is to describe training volume and intensity distribution of elite open-water swimmers during the 2016 Olympic season, verifying if, in order to maximize performance, most of the training would be performed at low intensities. Methods: Eight elite Italian open-water swimmers (3 male and 5 female; 25 [2] y, 1.74 [0.05] m, 68.26 [8.17] kg) specialized in distances between 5 and 25 km participated in the study. Training load was determined using an online training diary. Training intensity was categorized according to the 3-zone model: Z1, light intensity; Z2, moderate intensity; and Z3, high intensity. Session rating of perceived exertion was used to quantify training-intensity distribution. This method assigns the entire session into a single intensity zone based on the rating of perceived exertion recorded 30 min posttraining. Results: Total yearly training volume was 3576.93 (272.390) km (3220.80–4041.97), distributed across 446 (37) (397–484) sessions monitored during the 2016 Olympic season. Training-intensity distribution in each zone was 76.83% (8.11%) in Z1, 17.70% (6.79%) in Z2, and 5.47% (5.93%) in Z3. Conclusions: High volumes in Z1 appear to be an important training method used by elite open-water swimmers. However, future research is necessary to study the effects of different training-intensity distribution on open-water swimming performances.

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Monitoring Rating of Perceived Exertion Time in Zone: A Novel Method to Quantify Training Load in Elite Open-Water Swimmers?

Cristian Ieno, Roberto Baldassarre, Maddalena Pennacchi, Antonio La Torre, Marco Bonifazi, and Maria Francesca Piacentini

Purpose: To analyze training-intensity distribution (TID) using different independent monitoring systems for internal training load in a group of elite open-water swimmers. Methods: One hundred sixty training sessions were monitored in 4 elite open-water swimmers (2 females and 2 males: 23.75 [4.86] y, 62.25 [6.18] kg, 167 [6.68] cm) during 5 weeks of regular training. Heart-rate-based methods, such as time in zone (TIZ), session goal (SG), and hybrid (SG/TIZ), were used to analyze TID. Similarly to SG/TIZ, a new hybrid approach, the rating of perceived exertion (RPE)/TIZ for a more accurate analysis of TID was used. Moreover, based on the 3-zone model, the session ratings of perceived exertion of the swimmers and the coach were compared. Results: Heart-rate- and RPE-based TID methods were significantly different in quantifying Z1 (P = .012; effect size [ES] = 0.490) and Z2 (P = .006; ES = 0.778), while no difference was observed in the quantification of Z3 (P = .428; ES = 0.223). The heart-rate-based data for Z1, Z2, and Z3 were 83.2%, 7.4%, and 8.1% for TIZ; 80.8%, 8.3%, and 10.8% for SG/TIZ; and 55%, 15.6%, and 29.4% for SG. The RPE-based data were 70.9%, 19.9%, and 9.2% for RPE/TIZ% and 41.2%, 48.9%, and 9.7% for the session rating of perceived exertion. No differences were observed between the coach’s and the swimmers’ session ratings of perceived exertion in the 3 zones (Z1: P = .663, ES = −0.187; Z2: P = .110, ES = 0.578; Z3: P = .149, ES = 0.420). Conclusion: Using RPE-based TID methods, Z2 was significantly larger compared with Z1. These results show that RPE-based TID methods in elite open-water swimmers are affected by both intensity and volume.

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Upper to Lower Limb Coordination Dynamics in Swimming Depending on Swimming Speed and Aquatic Environment Manipulations

Brice Guignard, Annie Rouard, Didier Chollet, Marco Bonifazi, Dario Dalla Vedova, John Hart, and Ludovic Seifert

Swimming is a challenging locomotion, involving the coordination of upper and lower limbs to propel the body forward in a highly resistive aquatic environment. During front crawl, freestyle stroke, alternating rotational motion of the upper limbs above and below the waterline, is coordinated with alternating lower limb pendulum actions. The aim of this study was to investigate the upper to lower limbs coordination dynamics of eight male elite front crawlers while increasing swimming speed and disturbing the aquatic environment (i.e., pool vs. flume). Upper to lower limb frequency ratios, coordination, coupling strength, and asymmetry were computed from data collected by inertial measurement units. Significant speed effect was observed, leading to transitions from 1∶1 to 1∶3 frequency ratios (1∶3 overrepresented), whereas 1∶2 frequency ratio was rarely used. Flume swimming led to a significant lower coupling strength at low speeds and higher asymmetries, especially at the highest speeds, probably related to the flume dynamic environment.

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Wetsuit Use During Open Water Swimming. Does It “Suit” Everybody? A Narrative Review

Claudio Quagliarotti, Matteo Cortesi, Giorgio Gatta, Marco Bonifazi, Paola Zamparo, Roberto Baldassarre, Veronica Vleck, and Maria Francesca Piacentini

Purpose : Although wearing a wetsuit while swimming, when permitted, is primarily for safety reasons (ie, to protect against hypothermia), changes in buoyancy, biomechanics, and exercise performance have been reported. This narrative review covers the benefits of different wetsuit models on performance in swimming and triathlon. Methods : A computer search of online databases was conducted to locate relevant published research until March 2021. After the screening process, 17 studies were selected for analysis. Results : Most of the selected studies involved pool swimmers or triathletes completing short or middle distances in a pool while using a full or a long sleeveless wetsuit. Swimming with wetsuit elicited significant improvements in performance (maximum 11%), mainly by decreasing drag and energy cost, by increasing buoyancy, and by affecting technique. Different rates of change in each factor were found according to swimming ability and wetsuit model. In addition, wearing a wetsuit was often rated as uncomfortable by athletes. Conclusions : Although improvement in swimming performance by wearing a wetsuit has been reported in the literature, the amplitude of the improvement remains questionable. The enhancement in swimming performance is attributable merely to improvements in propulsion proficiency and buoyancy, as well as a reduction in drag. The extent to which athletes are familiar with the use of a wetsuit, their swimming ability, and the wetsuit model may play important roles in this improvement. More studies simulating competition and comparing elite versus nonelite athletes are needed.

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The Effects of a Wetsuit on Biomechanical, Physiological, and Perceptual Variables in Experienced Triathletes

Claudio Quagliarotti, Matteo Cortesi, Vittorio Coloretti, Silvia Fantozzi, Giorgio Gatta, Marco Bonifazi, Paola Zamparo, and Maria Francesca Piacentini

Purpose: Wetsuits have been shown to change swim biomechanics and, thus, increase performance, but not all athletes are comfortable with their use because of possible modifications in motor coordination. The aim of this study was to evaluate the effects of wetsuit use on biomechanical, physiological, and perceptual variables. Methods: Eleven national- and international-level triathletes, familiar with wetsuit use, performed 7 × 200-m front crawl at constant preset speed twice, with and without a full wetsuit. The trunk incline (TI) and index of coordination (IdC) were measured stroke by stroke using video analysis. Stroke, breaths, and kick count, and timing (as breathing/kick action per arm-stroke cycle); stroke length (SL); and underwater length were analyzed using inertial-measurement-unit sensors. Heart rate (HR), rating of perceived exertion (RPE), and swimming comfort were monitored during the task. Results: A lower TI; IdC; number of strokes, kicks, and breaths; HR; and RPE for each 200 m were found in wetsuit compared with swimsuit condition. Higher values of SL and underwater length were found in wetsuit, whereas no differences were found in swimming comfort and timing of kicks and breaths. An increase for swimsuit condition in number of strokes and breaths, HR, and RPE was found during the task compared with the first 200 m. Conclusion: Wetsuit use reduces TI and, thus, drag; increases propelling proficiency; and shows lower fatigability, without modifying motor coordination, compared with swimsuit use at the same speed. The use of a wetsuit during training sessions is recommended to increase comfort and the positive effects on performance.