Analyzing the Relationship Between Swimming Lane and Performance

Written by Gabby Vennitti

In correspondence with Sam Ventura's class: 36-145 - Winning with Statistics in Sports

The 50 freestyle is one of the most exciting races in all of competitive swimming. It’s fast-paced, usually takes less than 25 seconds, and has been swum by every swimmer from every age group in the Olympics. With most races being decided by a hundredth of a second, any wrong move can cost an athlete a gold medal. Each aspect’s importance in the race makes the 50 freestyle especially susceptible to specifics, as in which lane the swimmer is placed.

In meets, swimmers are assigned to specific lanes based on their times. The fastest swimmer is placed in lane 4, the second fastest in lane 5, the third fastest in lane 3, and so on. The data should show that the fastest swimmers would be found in the middle lanes of the pool. It would be unexpected to see a swimmer who won the final from an outside lane. The data to investigate the hypothesis was collected from the top male 50 freestylers in last three swimming world championships.

The three World Championships in this dataset are Kazan in 2015, Barcelona in 2013, and Shanghai in 2011. By looking at those who made finals in the 50 free in these competitions, it gives not only insight into the lane placement, but also which meet produced the fasted time. When looking into the times for the 50 freestyle, times in the event are expected to get faster as the years go on. Changes in training, nutrition, and race gear have been making swimming faster and faster. In the data analyzed, we assume the 50 freestyle will follow this trend.

In the data analyzed for this article, some of the expected results didn’t occur. Some swimmers didn’t improve as the years progressed, and became slower because of lane placement or age.


For example, Florent Mandelou competed in all three World Championships, but his fastest time was in 2013. There are a number of different reasons why his times got slower, but the biggest factor is age. The higher numbers on the graph correlate to a slower swim and a worse overall performance than swims in earlier championships. His fastest time was in 2011, even though it would be expected to be found in 2015.

Despite swimming trending towards faster times, 2011 was actually an extremely fast championship.  In fact, the fastest average of a preliminary (prelim), semifinal, and final was Bruno Fractus in 2011. These might be the result of the lane the swimmer was in. Bruno was placed in lane 4 for his events, which is almost always the fastest lane. César Chielo was consistently one of the fastest swimmers in the 50 free, and achieved his best time in the 2013 World Championships also in Lane 4. However, there are exceptions. For example, Nathan Adrien reached his best time in lane 3, and not lane 4 despite having multiple opportunities in lane 4.


The graph featured above shows the average times taken from the past three World Championships analyzed throughout this article. The average time of lane 4 agrees with the expected results. Since the fastest swimmers would be placed in lane 4 for finals, semifinals, and prelims it makes sense that it would have one of the fastest average time. The two unexpected results are the average times for lanes 5 and 8. Lane 8 has the fastest average time, while lane five has one of the slowest. Some reasons for lane 8’s results are the fact that times and lanes were only taken from those who made finals. Many finalists are put in lane four and five in prelims. Swimmers’ slowest speeds in the meet are often during prelims, which shifts the average towards a slower time. Lane five was the lane with the highest number of observations, and saw the most swimmers from prelims. Since, as previously explained, swimmers are at their slowest during prelims, the high density of those in lane 5 may have been the biggest contributor to the high average time seen in the results.

While the evidence points to certain lanes being predictive of the fastest swimmer, the relationship isn’t always true. The data showed that exceptions in the swimming world are prevalent. The most recent meet surprisingly turned out not to be the fastest meet. Lane 8 should have been the slowest lane, but turned out to be one of the fastest.

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