Why are swimmers so tall?

If you really look at it, many swimmers are quite tall. This doesn’t mean that you won’t find swimmers with height like the rest of us. But when it comes to really tall swimmers, is there something about swimming that makes swimmers tall? Is it possible to gain some height through the recreational or competitive sport of swimming? People say we stop growing around the average age of 25; or is this just an illusion? Is this concept not inclusive of professional swimmers? There are so many questions that need to be answered. With this post, we’ll attempt to get some answers.

They only tend to be tall (outliers are leading the pack)

Usually, basketballers are very tall as height is very important in the game. It helps you shoot a basket better. But have you noticed that swimmers are also tall? Some of the tallest athletes in the world are actually swimmers.  There is not yet enough proof that swimming helps you become taller. When you swim, you might appear taller, and this is due to certain reasons:

  • Swimming involves movement against gravity (i.e. horizontal movement in water), so there is a reduction of the weight of your body mass on your spine. This makes the pressure on the spinal discs reduce greatly, leading to spinal decompression.  This will make you look taller, but it is only temporary. If you try to prove this height difference by measuring your height before and after you swim, you need to know that the average human height differs at different times of the day. Studies show that you are tallest in the morning, and this height can differ by up to 1.5cm by evening. So, you might falsely believe that swimming adds to your height if you swim in the morning and measure your height afterwards.
  • Many professional swimmers are quite tall, but this is not due to the action of swimming. True, many of them started swimming at a young age. But rather than focus on swimming as the reason for their height, the age at which they began swimming is a contributory factor. If you notice, many young swimmers are taller than their peers. As they begin to take their swimming to a professional level, age and genetics (hormones and puberty) is also playing a role in making them experience a growth spurt. This spurt occurs at a fast pace (because they are in their adolescent years) that one easily believes that the swimmers are tall because of their professional sport.

There is no research to prove that swimming confers a height advantage on individuals. Although, swimming helps you indulge in a healthy lifestyle that can help you grow to your full height if you are a growing adolescent.

Are their short competitive swimmers?

I am sure you have started searching your mental archives to confirm if you have only seen tall swimmers or if there are short swimmers too. Not to worry, let me help you; there are actually short swimmers that even compete professionally. As much as height is an added advantage, being an exceptional swimmer involves a lot of intrinsic and extrinsic factors.

The intrinsic factors include hard work, dedication, technique skill, nutrition, etc. Extrinsic factors include coaching, psychology, support, adaptation, and training, etc. All of these come together to determine how far a swimmer might go professionally regardless of height.

So, you can see that what shorter swimmers lack in height, they make up for in body proportions and skill. You can find examples of exceptional swimmers that are quite short (below 5 ft. 10 inches) in male swimmer Kosuke Higano (Japan) and female swimmer Katinka Hosszu (Hungary).

As at 2016, Kosuke Hagino was the best male swimmer in the world with record swimming times that had not yet been seen. He won medals in all the events he participated at the 2014 Asian tournament, and in 2020, he was fifth overall in the 200 International Swimming League season. All of this was done with a height of 5 ft. 8 inches.

Katinka Hosszu who was once named as the Most Valuable Hungarian athlete by Forbes Magazine is also an exceptional swimmer that is not tall. She is 5 ft. 6 inches in height, but had a remarkable performance at the 2016 Rio Olympics with 3 gold medals and 1 silver medal.

Using an analysis of swimmers in the 2016 Rio Olympics, you will see that the average height for men is 6ft. 2 inches and for women is 5 ft. 9 inches. But Kosuke and Katinka have shown that it is still possible to be a short swimmer with exceptional skills enough to outshine taller swimmers.

Taller swimmers tend to have bigger limbs

Morphology is very important in swimming, as the shape of your limbs (hands and feet) determine the distance you can swim. Let me break it down a bit. Your hands (and arm) act as a paddle to help you move through the water without creating resistance. As you do this, your feet help to create a propulsion that pushes you forward. This is why it is widely believed that taller swimmers have an advantage.

Many tall swimmers tend to have big feet and longer arms, which help them swim through the water swiftly. However, weight also has a part to play when swimming. Swimmers who weigh above average have to spend a lot of energy moving through water, compared to those with a normal weight. This is an advantage that shorter swimmers might have that enables them move more swiftly in water. As a swimmer, there is an advantage when you have bigger limbs due to the following reasons;

  • Wing Span: An advantage with bigger limbs lies in wingspan. If you have longer, bigger upper limbs; you will have a longer wingspan. This means that you can swim a long distance in a faster time. This study of the relationship between limb size and length is called Anthropometry. Anthropometry is important in swimming because it determines buoyancy and strength of the swimmer. Bigger limbs will definitely make you more buoyant as you move through water.
  • Mass Centre and Flexibility: Mass Centre refers to the point at which your body and the water are in sync such that you have a perfect balance. Mass Centre also affects flexibility. If your shoulders and ankles are not flexible enough to keep you balanced, you really cannot be a good swimmer. This is why you need bigger limbs, as they will aid your flexibility and your movement.

In addition to all this, studies have shown that morphology has an effect on swimming performance. This is why a greater number of taller swimmer’s swim faster than shorter swimmers.

Having Bigger feet

You might be wondering why the subject of foot is important. When swimming, your feet act as a propeller generating a force with the water current that moves you forward. This is why you need to have flexible ankles as highlighted in the previous section. But beyond flexible ankles, the size of your feet also plays a great role in propulsion. This is because your legs actually do little and can pull you with their weight. Having smaller feet will not be effective enough to create a force that counterbalances the weight of your legs. This might affect the horizontal balance of your body in water, so you will either get tired easily as you struggle to keep your mass center or you will have to use a technique that will slow you down, but will help you maintain your balance as you swim.

You can therefore not deny the importance of having huge feet. To understand this, imagine swimming with fins or flippers. It is relatively easy because the surface area of the flippers create a propelling force that is strong enough to move you forward with little exertion. Now, imagine the kind of tornado you will be if you have shorter legs (meaning there is less weight to drag as you swim) and big feet (meaning you can create a huge force that can propel you in the shortest possible time.

Now, do not forget that training, skill and technique also play a role in improving your swimming. Having big feet gives you an advantage, but you still need to learn how to use that “resource” at your disposal. If you do not know how to use your feet (and ankles) when swimming, it will make almost no difference in speed.

Can short swimmers outpace a taller swimmer?

I am sure that you can answer the question from all we have discussed so far. But yes, it is very possible for short swimmers to outpace taller ones. If you do not believe me, Kosuke Hagino and Katinka Hosszu are enough proof. When it comes to being a short swimmer, it can be quite discouraging to see other good (or sometimes better) swimmers who are tall. But the first thing you should know is that regardless of the height, if you do not believe in yourself, you are well on your way to creating the biggest “weight” on your body that will impede your performance. So, discard the belief that you cannot do much because you are a short swimmer. Other things you can do include;

  • Improve your swimming skills: One thing you should realize is that as a short swimmer, there is less weight for you to move through water. You can use this to your advantage by learning how to improve your starts, stroke turns and flexibility under water. The truth is, the easiest and best time to get an edge when swimming is when you start the race. The force with which you push yourself underwater will give you a great momentum to follow through and finish in the shortest time possible. Also, the type of stroke you choose will either be an asset or a disadvantage when you swim. Some swimming strokes will enable you move your arms and legs farther than others. Practice using all swimming styles till you find the one that suits you in all ways.
  • Exercise: Exercises such as stretches and weight training will help you become more flexible and resilient underwater. It is, therefore, important to exercise frequently, before and after swimming sessions. Stretches will actually make you look and feel taller as you swim, and weight training will give you strength and speed, which will have a great impact on your overall performance.

All in all, you need to remind yourself that it is not the height of a swimmer that makes him (or her) exceptional. Rather, when you are able to understand your body and how it synchronizes with water, you will be surprised at how great a swimmer you will be both in and out of water.

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