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Why do female olympic swimmers have the body type they do?
July 4, 2008 7:00 PM   Subscribe

Why do even olympic level swimmers (especially women) appear to have a "thin layer of fat over muscle" look rather than having the extreme muscle definition of say, sprinters?

Mrs. True and I are watching the US Olympic Trials and it seems to a consistent body type. Clearly they are in peak physical condition but even the short distance sprint swimmers seem to be be a little 'thicker' than other athletes at that level (especially in the torso and arms). Is there something about swimming that makes this the ideal body type for women, or is it a side effect of swimming itself?
posted by true to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
I believe it's a side effect. My poor friend loves to swim competitively, and has for many years, but wears nothing sleeveless because of what it does to her arms. They're bigger than mine, and not defined, but instead brawny. She could toss kegs.
posted by Askr at 7:10 PM on July 4, 2008


Water absorbs heat very efficiently, and fat functions as insulation. I hypothesize that warm muscles work better than cold ones, and in cold water with all else being equal, insulated muscles work better than uninsulated ones.
posted by infinitewindow at 7:13 PM on July 4, 2008


Subcutaneous fat is an insulator. If you spend a lot of time in the water, you may become very fit, you may lose fat from other parts of your body (visceral and intramuscular), but your body will tend to hang on to the subcutaneous fat and lose it last. You may see some very defined male swimmers, and even female swimmers (scroll down for a picture of Dara Torres), but they're pretty rare.
posted by maudlin at 7:20 PM on July 4, 2008


It's both a side-effect and an advantage. Speaking as a competitive distance runner, very low body fat is good for performance as weight is the enemy. It also leaves one with very little buffer against ill-health. I've gained some weight since my collegiate days (I was 5'10" 138-140) and I now get sick way, way less than I used to.

Swimming (I've done that some too) is easier and more pleasant with a bit of fat on you as you're more buoyant and you're warmer. I would argue that you're also a bit more streamlined when not overly bony. Athletes at that level are a cross-section of what really works, and in swimming's case fat is more of an advantage than a disadvantage. It's as simple as that.
posted by jimmythefish at 8:09 PM on July 4, 2008


I second jimmythefish; it makes you a little more hydrodynamic and the buoyancy helps.

I suspect that these same women would look quite different if they weren't swimming competitivly (or were otherwise more sedentary).
posted by porpoise at 8:36 PM on July 4, 2008


Check out this link - scroll down for the photo. Dana Torres is a sprint swimmer. She's muscular, has no body fat, and she's been breaking world records for about 25 years.
posted by zippy at 8:46 PM on July 4, 2008


She's muscular

she also follows a different weight-resistance regimen to get that way
posted by yort at 10:50 PM on July 4, 2008


having been a competitive swimmer (albeit not at that level!) i don't remember the layer-of-fat-over-muscle being a goal. we never ate with that in mind, or trained with that in mind. i think it's just the kind of body that the sport produces, for whatever reason. even the men are not as well-defined as runners or basketball players of the same caliber. they certainly have comparable strength and muscle mass, but you can (or i can) tell the difference.

swimming alone won't make you "cut"--not even swimming and standard weight training. dana torres looks that way because of a very specific resistance training regimen. it makes her a better swimmer, for sure, but her regimen is not what most swimmers do. i think the definition you see in runners or basketball players is just a result of the difference in their training.
posted by thinkingwoman at 11:16 PM on July 4, 2008


Water absorbs heat very efficiently, and fat functions as insulation. I hypothesize that warm muscles work better than cold ones, and in cold water with all else being equal, insulated muscles work better than uninsulated ones.

Subcutaneous fat is an insulator. If you spend a lot of time in the water, you may become very fit, you may lose fat from other parts of your body (visceral and intramuscular), but your body will tend to hang on to the subcutaneous fat and lose it last.


These armchair theories are completely wrong. Elite swimmers' bodies, like those of any active athlete, produce massive amounts of heat. The water in competition pools is deliberately (and very precisely) kept colder than in recreational pools to prevent athletes from overheating (which would impair their performance).
posted by randomstriker at 12:55 AM on July 5, 2008 [4 favorites]


My guess, to answer your question, is that this is due to a combination of factors:

1) Even the shortest event (50m freestyle) lasts for at least 20 seconds. Very few athletes compete exclusively in the shortest sprint distance, so their muscle development will be broadly spread over slow twitch and intermediate-fast twitch fibers, both of which are less bulky than fast twitch fibers.

2) Success in swimming is heavily dependent on technique (hydrodynamic efficiency) and aerobic endurance. Raw strength is important but a lesser factor -- hence the sleeker look. But have you seen an elite swimmer up close? Believe me, they are solid muscle all the way through.

3) Women (except for the weight-lifting freaks) are less muscular than men anyway.
posted by randomstriker at 1:11 AM on July 5, 2008


This has more to do with muscle tone, than with fat percentages. Sprinting on land demands much much quicker movements and reactions than sprinting under the restistance of water, as swimming is. Swimmers typically have much longer muscles than athletes competing on the dry. Longer, powerful, yet almost slow muscles.

And the longer the muscles, the less they will show their tone.
posted by ijsbrand at 4:59 AM on July 5, 2008


Every study they have done on why swimmers are "fatter" has been inconclusive. If anything, I would guess it is because since that fat doesn't hurt your swimming, people who are more prone to that body type end up in that sport.

Then again, the perception of beefiness has to do with a few things: those suits are so tight that half of what looks like fat is just muscle getting pushed around and swimming gives you big lats and shoulders and triceps, which look "beefy" on girls. And it is not Dara's stretching that makes her look magically more cut: Natalie is just as cut as Dara. They are all probably more cut than you think.
posted by dame at 5:37 AM on July 5, 2008


And the longer the muscles, the less they will show their tone.

What? That makes no sense. Muscle "tone", in the world of skeletal muscles and the way they look on a human being, has to do with the amount of fat sitting on top of them.

Perhaps you are thinking of fast and slow twitch muscle fibers. Common wisdom seems to indicate that fast twitch fibers contribute to muscle bulk more than slow twitch fibers (although cursory googling can't verify that claim with solid evidence), so if you believe that swimmers use more slow twitch fibers then that would explain a lack of bulk. However, marathon runners are the ultimate example of favoring slow twitch fibers and the elite ones still show plenty of muscle "tone", mostly because they have such extremely low body fat.
posted by ch1x0r at 11:48 AM on July 5, 2008


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