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

Maui Channel Relay: The Video

Last September I joined some San Francisco friends in Maui for a memorable few days of swimming and leisure (but mostly leisure). You may have seen the short video I posted a while back of my solo Maui Channel swim. Two days before the solo, I did the same swim with my friends in the annual Maui Channel Swim Relays.

So, this video has been a long time in the making. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing? Nothing beats the February doldrums like Hawaii (or at least, thinking about Hawaii).

The relay was loads of fun and mostly uneventful, with the unfortunate exception of our third swimmer getting tangled in a jellyfish (probably a box) only a few minutes into her 30-minute leg. She got on the boat and (as allowed by the rules) we turned off the engine and floated in place. At the next change-over, we put our next swimmer in the water and continued on our way.

We all got “zapped” a few times by jellies, but we made it to the finish at Kaanapali Beach without further incident. Our third swimmer was just unlucky, it seems. So it goes!

Anyway, here it is. It starts off with just photos, but there’s GoPro footage too! Click through to Vimeo for the HD version.

Maui Channel Relay 2012 from Evan Morrison on Vimeo.

We ended up 25th out of 47 teams in the overall standings, in 4 hours 34 minutes. Not bad considering the 23-odd minutes we spent sitting in place mid-channel! Even better, our divisional placing was good enough for a coveted plush Maui Channel Swim towel. It’s so nice, I still haven’t used it.

Eventually, I will put together a “director’s cut” of my solo swim – which incidentally would have placed fourth overall among the relays 🙂

Oh, one more thing. Our GPS tracks:

gpsUnfortunately, my GPS wasn’t able to get a fix until sometime near the beginning of Scott’s leg. Notice the “dogleg” that occurs in our path shortly thereafter – that’s when we turned the engine off to wait out Tara’s leg. In reality, we were drifting with the current, which was pushing due north.

The only three things that matter in channel swimming

I truly believe that a Channel Swim – performed under traditional rules – is among the greatest athletic feats that a human can achieve.

We are terrestrial animals, adapted to surviving on land with the assistance of clothing and shelter. We are capable of great efficiency of movement – on solid ground.

A Channel Swim turns all this on its head. Without shelter… naked but for a porous, skimpy textile garment… we step offshore into an environment we are terribly adapted to, and terribly inefficient at moving through. As the ocean floor drops beneath our ability to stand, and the cold begins its creeping march from the extremities to the core – there are really only two options: Swim to the other shore… or get on the boat.


I have another belief, which might seem to contradict or undermine my first belief (that a Channel Swim is one of the greatest athletic feats a human can achieve). And that is:

Almost any able-bodied human can accomplish a Channel Swim.

You don’t need to be athletic, or coordinated, or physically strong. You don’t even need to be a particularly skilled swimmer. By which I mean: the level of swimming skill necessary for a Channel Swim can be learned by almost anybody, even as an adult.

Some of the most famous and accomplished Channel Swimmers, you would not be able to pick out from the average noodler at your local lap pool. The distinguishing characteristic of the Channel Swimmer – the ability/motivation/inclination to keep swimming (and swimming, and swimming…) – is something that cannot be observed in a thin slice of behavior.


On the basis of these two beliefs, I propose that only three things truly matter in Channel Swimming:

1. Health

Sure, OK. If you are gravely ill or injured, perhaps a Channel Swim isn’t in the cards.

2. Will

a.k.a., persistence, stubbornness, tenacity.

Don’t know how to swim? You can learn, well enough (if you want it).

Not ready for the distance? You can build up to it (if you want it).

Not ready for the cold? You can acclimate. Find some cold water. Go swim in it. Do it again, and again, and again. That’s why it’s called “acclimation” – your body will adapt (if you want it to).

3. Money

gwbill

Channel Swimming is such a first world problem. Boats cost money. Sanction fees cost money. Travel costs money. The opportunity costs (training when you could have been working) cost money.

Whether the funds come from your rich uncle, from a sponsor (because you’re gifted – either athletically or self-promotionally), or out of your own pocket, there’s no way around it: Channel Swimming is a huge money drain.

If you don’t have it, or you’re too shy to solicit it, then, well — too bad. Life isn’t fair, and Channel Swimming ain’t a meritocracy. You may be a better swimmer than 90% of the English Channel soloists in a given year, but if you don’t have the money and time to get to Dover, then — too bad!

Does this undermine my belief that Channel Swimming is “one of the greatest athletic feats a human can achieve”? Maybe a little bit. Channel Swimmers may have to overcome a lot during their swimbut most of them probably don’t have much to “overcome” otherwise. When Channel Swimmers return to the harbor, most of them are going home to affluent situations.

Sometimes, when I read tales of seemingly-heroic Channel Swims in newspapers and blogs, it occurs to me that the real story is not how amazing the swim was, but rather, how fortunate the swimmer was to be able to attempt it in the first place.

I write these words as someone who has been very fortunate to have some incredible channel/marathon swimming experiences these past few years.

I am one of the lucky ones.


So you did a Channel Swim – congratulations. Any Channel Swim is, in my view, a heroic feat (for reasons described above).

But before you get too caught up in how awesome you are, remember how lucky you are – to even have the opportunity to put your toe in the water.

[This post benefited from (and was inspired by) conversations with Cathy – who, it should be emphasized, doesn’t necessarily agree with everything I wrote here.]

Take the marathon swimming rules survey

If these discussion threads at the Marathon Swimmers Forum are any indication, marathon swimmers love to argue about rules. This is not surprising; rules define the boundary conditions of our sport, what is and is not a “marathon swim.” The beauty of marathon swimming derives, at least in part, from its purity and asceticism — its prohibitions against things that would make it easier.

Take the survey HERE

Debates and hand-wringing occasionally arise due to a few “local variations” on marathon swimming rules:

  • Neoprene caps are allowed by the Farallon Islands Swimming Federation, out of respect for Stewart Evans and Ted Erikson, who both wore neo caps on their pioneering Farallon swims.
  • In NYC Swim events, swimmers are allowed to exit the water in the event of lightning, and return to the water afterward without disqualification.
  • In Cook Strait swims, swimmers are allowed to exit the water for ten minutes in the event of a shark encounter.
  • Increased-coverage swimsuits (e.g., rash guards and stinger suits) are allowed in Rottnest Channel swims.

Concern trolls sometimes use these variations in an attempt to undermine marathon swimming, or to promote an “anything goes” policy. There may not be any universal set of marathon swimming rules (and I don’t think it makes sense to have one), but there is absolutely a universal spirit, going back to Captain Webb: to swim without artificial assistance.

Technology being what it is, new apparel and devices are always being developed, which are intended to make the act of swimming easier, but which do not specifically violate the rules.

How should we deal with these developments? How to decide whether an item violates the “spirit,” or not?

With these questions in mind, the SBCSA (specifically, Scott Zornig and I) present a community opinion survey on rules in marathon swimming:

bit.ly/SBCSAsurvey

(The survey benefited from feedback from Donal Buckley and Rob Dumouchel — thanks guys.)

The spirit of marathon swimming is defined by the “spirit” (and opinions) of marathon swimmers. But to my knowledge, there has never been any systematic study of what marathon swimmers actually think about these issues.

So that’s the motivation behind the survey. Anyone (marathon swimmer or otherwise) is invited to take it, by the way.

In closing, I’d like to quote a Michael Oram email from the Channel Swimmers chat group, which to my mind at least, eloquently captures the “spirit” of the sport:

It has always amazed me how athletes spend such a lot of time trying to stretch the rules and find aids. Channel swimming is a personal competition between the swimmer and the elements. Looking for that extra edge all the time is a negative approach as instead of working within the established parameters you are grasping at straws to get a little more assistance, or confidence.

Once you have started it’s you against the elements; whatever hat you are – or are not wearing.

Related external post:Confused” – by Jamie Patrick, Adventure Swimmer