Why do swimmers peak so young?

Last year, this question was posted on Quora:

Just yesterday another world record broken by a 16 year old., most swimmers (especially female) seem to retire in their early 20’s, yet for most other sports, athletes peak in their late 20’s.

It’s been a year, and since then I was fortunate to be on two national top-ten relays, and move from “speed club Bronze” to “speed club Silver” (oh that elusive Gold!) – which reminded me of this post which is worth sharing again for my aging friends (and yes, we are all aging 🙂

I completed from age eight to age 19.  Though not anywhere near elite level myself – I was fortunate to share the pool with team mates who themselves went on to become Olympians.

I left swimming for the reasons so many have already noted in the Quora post: (1st) the result of merging 6 hrs per day of training with college academics broke me down physically to the point that my body could not repair itself fast enough – my shoulders were falling apart and muscle growth was impeded by breakdown from high-exertion with insufficient repair time, and (2nd) I experienced the training environment miss-match as mentioned by Carly Geehr in her answer to the Quora post (sprint versus distance training regimens).

After setting swimming aside for 30 years, I started two (now three) years ago with masters’ swimming and have been asking a question related to the subject “why do swimmers peak so young” question:

“How does peak swimming performance change with age?”

To answer this question, I charted the U.S. Masters’ Swimming National qualifying times for 100 meters long course freestyle versus age (2013).  The “cut-off” – or qualification times – represent the best times that can be achieved by dedicated elite swimmers in each age bracket throughout the United States.

This curve then, illustrates the change in peak performance versus age for “near-elite” swimmers.  Similarly, it illustrates the “age bracket in which near-elite swimmers peak” – 40-44 yrs old for men, and 25-30 yrs old for women.

This is what I found:

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