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Swimming Tests of Cardiovascular Endurance

Swimming is a sport in which cardiovascular endurance plays a major part in the performance. There are many aerobic fitness tests, but not many designed specifically to test the endurance of swimmers. Here is a discussion of some of the commonly used swimming fitness tests.

Measuring V02max

The criterion test for aerobic fitness is the maximum oxygen uptake (VO2max) test. To directly measure VO2max in swimmers is difficult as it requires the measurement of ventilation rate and the collection of expired air (see conducting a Swimming VO2max Test). VO2max measures of swimmers are usually done in research situations, requiring specific equipment and sometimes a swimming flume. Conducting a VO2max test on swimmers using a treadmill or bicycle is not a valid alternative, as those exercise modes use different muscle groups and actions (hough using a swim bench is an option). The alternative is to do other water-based aerobic fitness tests.

The (Water) Beep Test

The most common field test of aerobic fitness is the Beep Test which was developed by Léger and Lambert (1982). The team of Lavoie et al. (1985), which included Léger, later published a variation of this test - the swimming beep test — conducted in a 25m pool, starting at a speed of 1 m/sec and increasing by 0.05 m/sec every two minutes.

There have been other swimming beep-type tests. One example was developed specifically for water polo players, who have different physiological demands than competitive lap swimmers. The 10 meter Multistage Shuttle Swim Test (MSST) was developed by sport scientists in Western Australia for the assessment of aerobic fitness of water polo players. The test is conducted over a 10-meter distance in the water rather than the 20m used on land for runners. Over such a short distance, the turning and acceleration phase becomes more important for this test performance, and makes it more relevant to water polo players who do more of these types of movements. There is a simpler coach-designed Williams Swimming Beep Test across a 12.5m pool, with the speed increasing every 100m. There is also the water polo intermittent shuttle test, over an even shorter distance (7.5m) which includes ten seconds of active recovery after each lap.

Other Swimming Tests

Many swimmers would have performed some form of step test, which involves swimming laps at a set pace followed by the measurement of physiological responses (e.g. heart rate, blood lactate level, perceived exertion). An example is described on this site - the 7 x 200m swim step test. This complex and time consuming test can give valuable information to the coach - the results can be used to plot heart rate/velocity curves or lactate/velocity curves, and can help set training programs. Changes in these over time are used to monitor changes in swimming specific aerobic conditioning. A measure of the anaerobic threshold can be determined from the analysis too.

A simpler test is the critical swim speed test, just requiring a maximal swim over two distances and some number crunching to give a value of the theoretical swimming speed that can be maintained continuously without exhaustion. Another simple swim test is the swolf, a measure of swimming efficiency. The swolf score is obtained by adding together the number of strokes taken in the pool length, and the time it took to swim that length. A lower swolf score equates to greater swimming efficiency.

Sometimes the best assessment of swimming fitness can be to swim a set distance flat out. Examples of such tests are the 100m swim test which has been used for junior talent identification, the 1 km swim, and the 500yd / 450m Swim Test which is an alternative to the 1.5 mile run test which forms part of the US Navy Physical Readiness Test. Similarly, the Swim 12-minute test requires the participants to swim for maximum distance in 12 minutes (much like the running Cooper test).


When testing in a swimming pool, it is important to consider the water temperature, which can affect the body physiology and performance. You should be aiming to have the temperature similar each time that testing is conducted, and also this temperature should be similar to the pool temperature used for competitions.


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