The Acceleration of the Women's 200m Breaststroke


Rebecca Soni broke the world record in the semifinals of the 200m breast. (Small)By Matt Barbini//National Team High Performance Consultant

In 1992, American Anita Nall set a world record in the women’s 200 meter breaststroke in a time of 2:25.35. Twenty years later at the 2012 Olympics in London Rebecca Soni broke her own world record with a time of 2:19.59. This represents an improvement of nearly six seconds, the greatest change in a women’s 200 meter world record during that time.


What drove this acceleration? In my opinion, there have been a number of changes and improvements over the years, but one way in which they primarily manifest themselves is in tempo.


Changes in rules, increases in physical strength and development of technical proficiency have all helped breaststrokers to swim faster with a lower tempo, but changes in race strategy and execution have also played a significant role in determining race outcomes. You’ll notice on the charts below that overall 200 breaststroke stroke tempos have slowed down significantly since 1992, but that the increase in stroke rate on the fourth 50 is now far more dramatic. At the 1992 Olympics, the average competitor in the 200 breaststroke increased their tempo by just over one tenth of a second from the third to the fourth 50. In 2012 that average increase rose to over two tenths between the third and fourth 50 and nearly three tenths from the first to the fourth 50, despite a slowing of tempos overall. 

 Average Tempos by 50 1992 - Final  2012 - Final 
 First 50  1.28  1.72
 Second 50  1.38  1.79
 Third 50  1.39  1.67
 Fourth 50  1.26  1.45

When we look at the medalists from each Olympic, final we see that a lesser version of this strategy was effective in the past and has been expanded upon in recent years. Even twenty years ago, the top three finishers were increasing their tempos on the last 50 by over one tenth of a second more than the rest of the field, and the same holds true when we look at results from 2012. In 1992, the average increase in stroke rate in the field as a whole from the third to the fourth 50 was 0.13, but for the medalists it was 0.19. In 2012 the field at large increased their tempos by 0.22 while the medalists increased by 0.3.


Average Tempos By 50 – Medalists  1992 – Final  2012 - Final 
First 50    1.32  1.70
Second 50   1.46  1.73
Third 50   1.48  1.62
Fourth 50   1.29  1.32

As I mentioned earlier, this element of race strategy is certainly not the only reason for the performance improvements seen in the women’s 200 breaststroke over the last twenty years. However, the effectiveness of moderating tempo and maximizing efficiency over the first three 50s, then finishing with a higher stroke rate seems to be increasing over time.

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