Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Warm Cities, Fast Swimmers

As a kid, I grew up in a middle class suburb in Dayton, Ohio.

Throughout my childhood, I always thought Ohio was a great swimming state. I mean look at the high school national record books and you'll see Ohioans scattered throughout.
However, now that I live in California, I have learned somewhat behind the learning curve, that California is a much faster swimming state.

I know what you're thinking, California is better because they have more swimmers or because the areas I've lived (Los Angeles, San Jose) have a higher socioeconomic class, etc.

These reasons likely tell part of the story, but I'm critical of their full contribution and wonder if perhaps cortical and motor development contributes to the equation.

Hands and Feet 
I'm shocked at the amount of people in California who wear sandals or no shoes at all, all the time!

I repeatedly have to remind kids to bring real shoes to dry-land. One particular kid sleeps in a hammock, so I guess I shouldn't expect anything else. 

In Ohio, and I'm guessing most of the Midwest, people wear shoes all the time! When I say all the time, I mean every waking second, until they go to bed. Even in bed many Midwesterners, like myself, wear socks (I'm trying to knock the habit). This desensitization doesn't only happen in the feet, but also in the hands. During cold spells, gloves help keep the body warm, but also desensitize oneself to sensation.

The cortex is complicated, which neither I, nor anyone else fully understands. However, literature suggests repeated use of an area increases cortex size and firing. Therefore, desensitization (gloves, socks, and shoes) may decrease their cortical size. Moreover, the hands and feet are highly innervated structures. This makes sense, as cave men/women we needed sensitive feet to prevent stepping on rocks and our society still uses their hands excessively making this neural structure necessary.

Unfortunately, desensitization is devastating for feel in the water. Often times, feel is only discussed for the hands, but the feet also feel. In California (and I'd imagine other warm states), the lack of shoes and gloves increases sensitivity and use of these areas, theoretically increasing the cortical demand and size, improving feel.

Exposure to Water
Another avenue giving California (and other coastal areas) an advantage is an early exposure to water. If you read frequently about the sport, then you are aware early specialization in swimming is not associated with swimming success. However, early exposure is essential. The exact mechanism behind this association is unknown, but is thought to improve motor programming, helping swimmers learn balance in the water.  Moreover, early users of water potentially learn motor programs in the water earlier, as they've learned how to use their body in the water.

Once again, this doesn't suggest 20 hours a week for a 3-year old, but being in the water at a young age is important for sports development.

Exposure to Various Activities
Californian high school kids are oblivious to professional sports. Perhaps it is my age, but everyone I grew up with was obsessed with professional sports. In California, the kids barely know who won the NBA Championship!

This is due to a few things: a lot of stuff to do and nice weather. A lot of things to do in California prevent kids from sitting around and watching TV. Moreover, the warm weather makes it easier for kids to get outside and run around instead of reading baseball card statistics, I was always memorizing Jose Rio's WHIP, ERA, and wins.

This exposure to various activities likely improves motor control and body awareness, all essential for improved biomechanics, the most important variable for success in swimming.

All of these variables are uncommon, but likely contributors to California and other warm, coastal cities success in swimming. Population, income, and race likely play a role in this success as well, but they likely tell part of the story.  


  1. Slow horses get sent to the dog food factory if they don't perform at a high level - just an analogy.

  2. It's the weather. We southern Californians can swim outdoors pretty much year-round. Many homes, not just those of the wealthy, have swimming pools, which often aren't even heated, in their backyards. Just like colder climates, where lakes freeze over in the winter, produce more good hockey players, of which California has very few. The weather, warm or cold, creates an opportunity to play a sport, and a subsequent culture around the sport develops. Stronger feet would certainly contribute to better balance on ice skates, and yet we still don't play much ice hockey in this California. I can't believe you didn't mention the weather; it's glaringly obvious. Maybe you were implying it by saying "exposure to water" but still, to leave that out is a big oversight in my opinion. It's not a mystery. It's the weather.