Marathon Swimming Rules Survey: Results and Analysis

Marathon Swimming Rules Survey: Results and Analysis


Marathon swimmers talk a lot about rules – what should and shouldn’t be allowed during a swim – but as far as I know, there has never been any systematic study of what marathon swimmers actually think, as a matter of public opinion.

Perhaps most would agree that goggles are OK, and fins are verboten… but what about swim streamers and stinger suits? Or drafting off the escort boat? If you only read blogs and forums, you might assume the most vocal opinions represent the majority. But do they really?

Earlier this month the SBCSA launched a survey to find out. Over 25 days, we received 175 responses from around the world.


First, a Summary of Findings (TL/DR). Click any of the following links to skip directly to the relevant section.

I. We received responses from a representative sample of marathon swimmers – current, former, and aspiring.

II(a). Marathon swimmers agree on basic channel-rules attire: traditional porous textile swimsuit (including jammers), goggles, one latex or silicone cap, ear plugs, and nose clips.

II(b). Marathon swimmers agree that substances or devices that protect the swimmer against dangerous marine life (e.g., sharks & jellyfish) – but unambiguously do not enhance performance – are acceptable.

II(c). Marathon swimmers agree that devices or substances that unambiguously enhance speed, buoyancy, or heat retention should NOT be allowed on marathon swims.

III. Controversial items include stinger suits, swim streamers, bubble caps, and shark divers.

IV. The more marathon swimming experience a person has, the more likely she/he is to embrace a minimalist approach to swim aids.


I. We received responses from a representative sample of marathon swimmers – current, former, and aspiring.

To argue that this survey accurately represents the opinion of the marathon swimming community, we must show that the 175 respondents are a representative sample of the community. We can do this in a few ways.

A. Geography

Of the 175 respondents, 71% live in North America, 19% live in the United Kingdom or Ireland, 5% live in Australia or New Zealand, and the remaining 5% live elsewhere.

As a baseline for comparison, here’s how those numbers compare to the unique visitors to the Marathon Swimmers Forum in February:

geog
Geographical distribution: Survey respondents vs. Marathon Swimmers Forum visitors

Another baseline for comparison? The Triple Crown list: as of 2012, 76% are from North America, 10% from the UK+Ireland, 4% from Australia+NZ, 4% from continental Europe, and the rest from elsewhere.

In sum, the survey sample has a lot of North Americans – but then, so does the global marathon swimming community generally.

B. Gender

gender
Gender distribution of survey respondents

What about the Triple Crown list? Exactly 60% men, 40% women. Pretty darned close.

C. Self-identification as a marathon swimmer

We asked respondents what they “identify most closely as.” Although we didn’t forbid non-marathon swimmers from taking the survey, we promoted and targeted it primarily at marathon swimmers, because that’s what our primary interest was: What do marathon swimmers think?

According to the data, 87% of respondents identified as either a current, former, or aspiring marathon swimmer.

Self-identification of survey respondents
Self-identification of survey respondents

D. Marathon swimming experience

We asked survey respondents about their specific experience in marathon swimming (and other endurance sports). We found that:

  1. 90% of survey respondents have swum at least 10km in open water.
  2. More than half have swum at least 25km in open water.
  3. Almost a third have swum the English Channel.
Accomplishments of survey respondents.
Marathon swimming experience of survey respondents.

Interesting sub-finding: Marathon swimmers are not as challenged on terra firma as the stereotypes might suggest. Almost half of respondents have done an Olympic-distance triathlon (or longer), and 30% have run a marathon. In comparison, Runners World estimates the percentage of the U.S. population who have run a marathon at 0.5% (ref).


II. Marathon swimmers largely agree on what should (and should not) be used in their sport.

Now to the meat of the study. What do marathon swimmers agree on?

Some critics and swim-aid proponents would have you believe the marathon swimming community can’t agree on what their own rules are. The implicit argument is typically: “Therefore, we might as well just let people use anything they want.”

Actually, the marathon swimming community agrees on quite a lot.

A. The marathon swimming community agrees on basic channel-rules attire: traditional porous textile swimsuit (including jammers), goggles, one latex or silicone cap, ear plugs, and nose clips.

B. The marathon swimming community agrees that substances or devices that protect the swimmer against dangerous marine life (e.g., sharks & jellyfish) – but unambiguously do not enhance performance – are acceptable.

More than 75% of survey respondents agreed that the following items are acceptable:

Percent of respondents who agree that item should be allowed on marathon swims
Percent of respondents who think item SHOULD be allowed on marathon swims

C. The marathon swimming community agrees that devices or substances that unambiguously enhance speed, buoyancy, or heat retention should NOT be allowed on marathon swims.

(Including drafting off the escort boat, which is allowed in the English Channel.)

More than 75% of survey respondents agreed that the following items are NOT acceptable:

Percent of respondents who agree that item SHOULD NOT be allowed on marathon swims
Percent of respondents who agree that item SHOULD NOT be allowed on marathon swims

D. More moderate consensus exists on the following:

agree3a
Percent of respondents who think item should be allowed

Some thoughts on why there is less consensus on these items:

  1. Using boat to shield from wind & waves – improves performance, but is already widely allowed, and it’s unclear how a prohibition could be enforced.
  2. Exiting water for safety reasons – allowed in MIMS and Cook Strait, but not elsewhere.
  3. Topical substance that retains body heat – does such a substance even exist? Perhaps a confusing question.
  4. Multiple caps – allowed by FINA, minimally performance enhancing.
  5. Shark sharpshooter – not performance enhancing, but harmful to sharks and thus morally problematic.
  6. Topical substance that warms the body – does such a substance exist? Confusing question.


III. Controversial items: stinger suits, swim streamers, bubble caps, and shark divers.

A. Shark divers. 59/41 (for/against).

B. Bubble caps. 43/57 (for/against).

C. Swim streamers. 46/54 (for/against).

D. Stinger suits. Tie – 50/50. 

(If you must know, the stinger suit vote was 84-yes, 83-no, with 8 no answers.)

My view: if an item is controversial, it cannot be considered “approved by the sport of ocean swimming.” At best, it might be considered a “local exception” to a more universal set of rules – for example, the use of streamers in Japan.

If an item is controversial, it is in some way approaching a line in the sand. In marathon swimming, if you’re flirting with this line – trying to find loopholes for some extra edge – quite simply, you’re doing it wrong.

Some stinger suit proponents claim that these enhanced-coverage suits are merely protective, not performance-enhancing – and that therefore they should be allowed on marathon swims.

Personally, I’m not sure about this claim. Couldn’t someone easily produce a stinger suit that is performance enhancing? Would we then have to define new rules about what is and is not a performance enhancing stinger suit? Could I put on my old full-body Blueseventy Nero tech suit and call it a “stinger suit”?


IV. The more marathon swimming experience a person has, the more likely she/he is to embrace a minimalist approach to swim aids.

The data presented so far represent the “collective” opinion of the marathon swimming community. However, within that collective, there is actually quite a diversity of opinions among individuals. For example, one person might think a streamer is OK but a stinger suit is not OK; while another person might think a streamer is not OK while a stinger suit is fine.

This diversity of opinions in the survey sample ranged from:

  • One extremely purist/minimalist individual who would only allow a standard cap, goggles, grease, sunblock, boat navigation, limited pace swimming, caffeine, anti-inflammatories, and touch starts. This person would prohibit everything else.
  • One extremely liberal-minded individual who would prohibit nothing – i.e., everything should be allowed (a troll, perhaps?).

For each survey respondent, I summed the total number of items the individual would allow – as an ideology index. So the minimalist respondent I mentioned above would get a 9 on the ideology index, while the everything-is-allowed respondent/troll would get a 48.

Here’s how the respondents were distributed according to ideology:

Histogram showing number of respondents grouped by how many items they would allow.
Histogram showing number of respondents grouped by how many items they would allow. Each number on the X-axis represents a “basket” of 5. So, the people in the ’25’ basket are those who would allow between 21 and 25 items, out of a possible 48.

One interesting question is: Why do some people prefer a minimalist approach, while others embrace technology and swim aids?

We would need a much longer survey to tease out the various reasons, but even in this brief survey there is a clear pattern:

The more marathon swimming experience a person has, the more likely she/he is to embrace a minimalist approach to swim aids.

The following chart shows the average “ideology index” score (out of 48) for four groups:

  1. People who have never done a marathon swim (27 of 175 total respondents)
  2. People who have done a 10km open-water swim but not a 25km (56 of 175)
  3. People who have done at least a 25km swim or one of the Triple Crown swims (57 of 175)
  4. People who have done two or three of the Triple Crown swims (35 of 175)
Average ideology score, depending on marathon swimming experience
Average ideology score, depending on marathon swimming experience

The same pattern emerges when we look at people’s opinions on just a single item, for example, the controversial stinger suit.

Percent of respondents who think stinger suits should be allowed, according to marathon swimming experience
Percent of respondents who think stinger suits should be allowed, according to marathon swimming experience

Obviously there’s much more we could get into with this data, but for now this report is quite long enough already. And I think I covered the big points. If readers are interested, I will do a follow-up post with additional summary data and analyses, as requested — an “appendix” of sorts. Let me know what you want to know.

For reference, here are screenshots of the original survey (click to enlarge):

Related External Posts

12 Responses to “Marathon Swimming Rules Survey: Results and Analysis”

  1. Donal

    2013-03-01T02:34:56+00:00

    Fantastic stuff. (I love your ideology index).

    A couple of unrelated thoughts:

    I guess people would be more influenced the more other marathon swimmers they know, first in real life, secondly online. So would members of Sandycove, Serps, Cibbows, SERC, etc be more “traditional”, be less accepting of deviation than the individual aspirants and swimmers? (Speculation). And of course, and this is not insignificant, the two main online communities, the Channel Chat Group, and marathonswimmers.org, also will have their own baseline standard, the natural consensus that forms in any group.

    I’m of course fascinated by the boat wake issue, as you know. I’I wanted people to be clear that boats already provide assistance in navigation and elemental protection. It should not have needed saying, but it did and I’m glad the distinction between that and using the wake is clear, though my unscientific guess is many people on a casual read will assume it means drafting behind the boat. But that may be my own confirmation bias.

    Per your “troll” respondent. One person came immediately to mind, who swims as we do, and for whom I enormously respect, could probably have answered in the affirmative to all aids, because they would see it to do otherwise would be to dictate what people should do, and they would never do that … if you follow that torturous prose. Basically, it might not be a troll, more speculation. And of course it’s possible to be “hardline” in many or most areas and liberal in one or two others, (like me).

    I’m also surprised that stinger suit acceptance is even as high as >30% amongst those with 2/3 Triple Crowns. Funny the contradictions in our community.

    Fantastic job. Well done and very very valuable.

    Reply
    • Evan

      2013-03-02T06:56:42+00:00

      Thanks D. I will respond to this in the next couple days.

      Reply
    • Evan

      2013-03-11T13:22:54+00:00

      Thanks for the kind words and thoughtful reactions. Your comment that “it’s possible to be “hardline” in many or most areas and liberal in one or two others” is an important one, and will be the theme of a follow-up post, when I get around to it. This actually describes very many of us – hardline overall, but accepting of a few items. The fascinating thing is, we all differ in which items in particular we’re accepting of. Which makes the idea of a universal, rigid set of rules for marathon swimming pretty much a pipe dream.

      Reply
  2. Jamie Patrick

    2013-03-01T08:46:43+00:00

    Wow – Is my first response. Well done and fun to review. It is interesting to see some of the responses that I thought would be swayed heavy to one direction be controversial. One thing I want to point out is that a stinger suit in my opinion is performance enhancing. When something enhances your ability to to accomplish something it is performance enhancing. It does not have to make you faster to be performance enhancing. I have said this before, devising a ranking system for swims could be a way to save marathon swimming. Thank you for putting this together.

    Reply
    • Evan

      2013-03-02T07:00:19+00:00

      Thanks Jamie. So you don’t agree with Pennys distinction between aid and protection? btw, not sure I do either. As far as the stinger suit, I think the evolution of the technology could potentially make it basically like a tech suit, so it’s a moot point anyway.

      Reply
  3. phil cutti

    2013-03-01T09:54:20+00:00

    interesting review. i think the sample size is on the low side, but it’s a start. also, how was the survey distributed? soley from the sbcsa newsletter? that could sway the results right there. i would be interested in seeing the results of this survey after it has been sent out from various channels (pun intended). great start to gaining more insight!

    Reply
    • Evan

      2013-03-01T11:07:42+00:00

      Hi Phil – thanks for the comment. We promoted the survey through the Marathon Swimmers Forum, my blog, Twitter, and Facebook, in addition to the SBCSA newsletter. In fact, we tracked the source of our respondents. Of all these channels, the Marathon Swimmers Forum brought in the most respondents, and the SBCSA newsletter brought in the fewest.

      Reply
  4. IronMike

    2013-03-02T16:53:33+00:00

    Love the analysis, thanks Evan. And the humor. “…approved by the sport…” hahahaha

    Reply
    • Evan

      2013-03-03T21:03:45+00:00

      Thanks for reading, Mike. Glad you caught that part ;)

      Reply
  5. Dave VM

    2013-03-03T14:44:04+00:00

    Evan, what an excellent summary of the survey! I liked everything about the ideology index including its name.

    It might be interesting to see the data stratified in other ways. So, for instance for II.B and II.C: these could be stratified by Gender, and separately, by Age (with a breakpoint at say 30 years of age).

    So, for Gender, for II.B, show each measured item in a bar chart, such that there are two bars for each attribute (% of males thinking an item was acceptable; % of females thinking an item was acceptable).
    For II.C, do the same for disallowed items.

    Then make the same pair of graphs for under 30 and over 30.

    ….
    About the stinger suits, I voted to disallow. I did this because I think it would cause such a muddying of the waters (apparel with many different unacceptable characteristics would be set forth by swimmers calling this apparel a “stinger suit”), that sanctioning organizations would have to get overly involved with making judgement calls on what is / isn’t a stinger suit.
    It may be, however, that local exceptions would need to be considered for the stinger suit.
    Thus in a stretch of water known to have very toxic jellyfish, the sanctioning body would allow the suit, but then will have to be hypervigilant in dealing with the swimmers who choose to use one of these suits.

    About the topical substances that either heat or retain heat, I assumed that such a substance does not exist. I thought if someone wants to put tiger balm on their body before a swim, they should go be allowed to do that. That strikes me as more of a placebo than anything of substance. And we should allow people their placebos, their amulets, their lucky pennies.
    (Or, have I missed the news–is there a magic topical substance available?)

    Bravo to you on this sentence: ” In marathon swimming, if you’re flirting with this line – trying to find loopholes for some extra edge – quite simply, you’re doing it wrong.”
    At some point, no matter how well-defined we make the rules of our sport, there will be some dancing around the line. A small number of swimmers will insist on forging across that line, to gain advantage. Were it not so!!!

    Reply
    • Evan

      2013-03-03T21:10:29+00:00

      Dave, thanks for the thoughtful response.

      Re: gender, I did check for any difference in the overall ideology index, and didn’t find any… however I’ll see what I can do looking for differences on individual items.

      Re: age – I didn’t collect any info on respondents’ age, so that won’t be possible. Good idea, though… (coulda, shoulda, woulda!).

      Re: your comments on stinger suits. Agree it would be good to distinguish between items people would have prohibited universally (e.g., wetsuits), vs. items people would allow as local exceptions (e.g., stinger suits, perhaps). I must admit, including this option (rather than just a binary Yes/No) may have led to an entirely different interpretation.

      Reply
  6. Limiting Factors in Marathon Swimming – Part 2 – Environmental Factors | LoneSwimmer

    2013-04-19T01:11:12+00:00

    […] of a wedge that will inevitably lead to more overt (or hidden) performance enhancing suits? (See Evan’s analysis of his survey of marathon swimmers for an excellent overview of the contradictions of divisions and unity in the […]

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