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Sex Difference in Female and Male Ice Swimmers for Different Strokes and Water Categories Over Short and Middle Distances: A Descriptive Study Key Points Open Access

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Background Winter swimming developed from a national tradition into a health-improving sport with international competitions. The difference in performance between women and men was thoroughly examined in various sporting disciplines; however, there is little data on winter swimming events. Therefore, this study aims to compare the sex differences in female and male winter swimmers for a distinct stroke over distances of 25 m and 200 m in ice water, freezing water and cold water in the multiple stages of the Winter Swimming World Cup, hosted by the International Winter Swimming Association (IWSA) since 2016. Methods All data included in this study were obtained from the official results of the Winter Swimming World Cup, published on the “International Winter Swimming Association” (IWSA) website. The Mann–Whitney U test was used to compare race time between sexes in different swimming strokes and categories of water. In contrast, the Kruskal–Wallis H test was used to compare differences between swimming strokes or water categories for the same sex. Results For 25 m and 200 m events of the “IWSA World Cup,” male athletes were faster than female athletes, regardless of stroke and water temperature category. However, the effect size of the difference between the sexes was greater in 25 m than in 200 m for all strokes and water temperatures. Swimming speed for the same-sex differed between the swimming stroke in relation to the water temperature category. Head-up breaststroke was found to be the slowest stroke (p < 0.05). Conclusion In water temperatures between − 2° and + 9 °C, men were faster than women in all stages of the “IWSA World Cup,” regardless of the swimming stroke, but the effect size of the difference between the sexes was greater in shorter than in longer events.
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Oppermannetal. Sports Medicine - Open (2022) 8:63
https://doi.org/10.1186/s40798-022-00451-w
ORIGINAL RESEARCH ARTICLE
Sex Dierence inFemale andMale Ice
Swimmers forDierent Strokes andWater
Categories Over Short andMiddle Distances:
ADescriptive Study
Janne Oppermann1, Beat Knechtle1,2* , Aldo Seffrin3, Rodrigo Luiz Vancini4, Claudio Andre Barbosa de Lira5,
Lee Hill6 and Marilia Santos Andrade3
Abstract
Background: Winter swimming developed from a national tradition into a health-improving sport with international
competitions. The difference in performance between women and men was thoroughly examined in various sporting
disciplines; however, there is little data on winter swimming events. Therefore, this study aims to compare the sex
differences in female and male winter swimmers for a distinct stroke over distances of 25 m and 200 m in ice water,
freezing water and cold water in the multiple stages of the Winter Swimming World Cup, hosted by the International
Winter Swimming Association (IWSA) since 2016.
Methods: All data included in this study were obtained from the official results of the Winter Swimming World Cup,
published on the “International Winter Swimming Association” (IWSA) website. The Mann–Whitney U test was used to
compare race time between sexes in different swimming strokes and categories of water. In contrast, the Kruskal–Wal-
lis H test was used to compare differences between swimming strokes or water categories for the same sex.
Results: For 25 m and 200 m events of the “IWSA World Cup,” male athletes were faster than female athletes, regard-
less of stroke and water temperature category. However, the effect size of the difference between the sexes was
greater in 25 m than in 200 m for all strokes and water temperatures. Swimming speed for the same-sex differed
between the swimming stroke in relation to the water temperature category. Head-up breaststroke was found to be
the slowest stroke (p < 0.05).
Conclusion: In water temperatures between 2° and + 9 °C, men were faster than women in all stages of the “IWSA
World Cup, regardless of the swimming stroke, but the effect size of the difference between the sexes was greater in
shorter than in longer events.
Keywords: Aquatic sports, Cold, Sex, Sport, Swimming, Water temperature
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Key Points
Males are faster than females in ice swimming,
most likely due to a higher muscle mass and better
strength as well as a taller stature, especially in sprint
races
Females can close the gap to males in cold water over
longer distances because of the insulating effect and
Open Access
*Correspondence: beat.knechtle@hispeed.ch
2 Medbase St. Gallen Am Vadianplatz, Vadianstrasse 26, 9001 St. Gallen,
Switzerland
Full list of author information is available at the end of the article
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Page 2 of 11
Oppermannetal. Sports Medicine - Open (2022) 8:63
better buoyancy in the water of their generally higher
body fat percentage.
Freestyle swimming is the fastest swimming stroke
in ice swimming, and colder water temperatures do
not always result in slower race times as psychologi-
cal and physical cold habituation might minimize the
effects of low temperatures on the body.
Introduction
Winter swimming, also known as ice swimming or cold-
water swimming, has developed from a national tradition
in Nordic and Eastern countries of Europe such as Fin-
land, Russia, and the Baltic states into an internationally
known and health-improving sport [1]. Ice swimming has
been proven to benefit the cardiovascular, immune, and
endocrine systems and psyche [2]. Beginning as a per-
sonal challenge of endurance and the spirit, it has evolved
into an internationally recognized sport with several
organizational bodies complete with rules, regulations
and record-keeping [2].
Nowadays, ice or cold-water swimming is considered a
health-improving sport and is also carried out in inter-
national competitions [1, 3]. In 2009 Ram Barkai, the
first man who completed an official “Ice Mile,” founded
the International Ice Swimming Association (IISA),
intending to introduce ice swimming as an internation-
ally recognized sport [3, 4]. In the meantime, the IISA
is organizing worldwide competitions in ice swimming
and pursuing the dream of integrating ice swimming into
the Winter Olympic Games by 2022 [5]. e Interna-
tional Winter Swimming Association (IWSA), founded in
2016, is another big association organizing and supervis-
ing global winter swimming competitions in open water
[1]. In the events of the IWSA, female and male athletes
from all over the world can participate in various swim-
ming competitions. ree different swimming strokes,
head-up breaststroke, butterfly, and freestyle, are offered.
Head-up breaststroke and freestyle performance for
races with distances of 25m, 50m, 100m, 200m, 450m
and 1000m and the butterfly stroke over a distance of
25m. Depending on the location and season of the event,
the water temperature can range from 2 to + 9 °C [1].
Water temperatures between 2 and 2°C are classified
as ice water, between 2.1 and 5°C as freezing water, and
between 5.1 and 9°C as cold water [1].
In recent years, the difference in performance between
women and men in various sporting disciplines was
examined in more detail [610]. Previous work showed
an increase in the participation of women in elite sports
disciplines and an improvement in the sex-related perfor-
mance (8–12%) [11]. Men present physiological advan-
tages, including larger body size, more skeletal muscles,
higher muscle strength and power, lower body fat, and
greater maximal anaerobic and aerobic energy delivery.
Especially in the upper part of the body, men have about
36% more muscle mass, resulting in a larger sex differ-
ence than average in events where upper-body power is
essential (i.e., canoeing with a sex difference > 20%) [12].
Sex differences in leg- or whole-body exercise sports in
triathlon performances were analyzed, reporting swim-
ming to be less affected by sex than cycling and running
[6]. In ultra-marathon running, women have reduced the
performance gap with advancing age [7]. Tower running
is another discipline where women can outperform men
but only in specific situations [8].
In swimming, research has focused mainly on long-
distance and open water swimming. is discipline is
known for a smaller sex difference than other sporting
disciplines. It is a sport where certain aspects of wom-
en’s body composition, like better hydrodynamic prop-
erties and floating skills, a lower drag coefficient, and a
higher percentage of body fat, may give an advantage in
performing at long durations, especially in cold water [6,
13]. Interestingly, women can outperform men in water
colder than + 20 °C during solo, long-distance swim-
ming events [9]. Girls at a young age (i.e., younger than
ten years) and women in older age groups (i.e., above
80years) can perform at the same level as men in all pool
swimming disciplines [9]. Looking at the performance of
open-water ultra-swimming, crossing the “English Chan-
nel,” over the last 36years, the top three male swimmers
were about 12% faster than their top female competitors,
although the water temperature was over 15°C [10]. Even
though some data about women’s performance compared
to men exist in disciplines like swimming, running, and
cycling, no studies have focused on the performance dif-
ferences in cold water or the performance differences
concerning the swimming stroke used.
Earlier studies showed that men are faster over shorter
distances than women in swimming, whereas the sex
difference in swimming performance decreased with an
increasing distance [14, 15]. Furthermore, research in
pool swimming showed that the sex difference in free-
style swimming from 50 to 1500 m became progres-
sively smaller with increasing race distance [16]. Colder
water temperatures resulted in an advantage for women
due to their higher body fat percentage than men [2, 9].
Furthermore, specific swimming strokes, especially free-
style performance, lead to a higher sex-related difference
in swimming speed than butterfly and classic head-up
breaststroke [17, 18]. e “International Winter Swim-
ming Association” (IWSA) clearly defined and set out
the distances and permitted swimming strokes for their
events. Distances are shorter than in classic pool swim-
ming events, starting with 25m instead of 50m and do
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Page 3 of 11
Oppermannetal. Sports Medicine - Open (2022) 8:63
not exceed the length of 1000 m. Most races are per-
formed using either “head-up breaststroke” or freestyle,
the fastest swimming stroke [18]. However, classic back-
stroke is not a currently permitted swimming stroke.
Moreover, the butterfly stroke is only performed at a 25m
distance. All disciplines are the same for male and female
participants, allowing for sex-specific comparisons.
Accordingly, the present study investigates the sex dif-
ference in performance in women and men winter swim-
mers for different strokes on a 25m and 200m distance
in the multiple stages of the Winter Swimming World
Cup since 2016. Based on recent findings for the disci-
pline of pool as well as cold-water swimming, we hypoth-
esized that the gap in performance of sexes in winter
swimming in the water below 9°C would decrease with
increasing swimming distance, in connection with lower
water temperatures and that this decrease would be
dependent on the swimming stroke used.
Materials andMethods
Ethical Approval
e study was conducted according to the guidelines of
the Declaration of Helsinki. is study was approved by
the Institutional Review Board of Kanton St. Gallen, Swit-
zerland, with a waiver of the requirement for informed
consent of the participants as the study involved the anal-
ysis of publicly available data (EKSG 01-06-2010).
Data Source
Data included in this study was obtained from the
“International Winter Swimming Association” (IWSA)
[1]. e IWSA publishes all official results of ice swim-
mers competing in the multiple stages of the Winter
Swimming World Cup on their website [1]. e results
include the swimmer’s full name, sex, age group, nation-
ality, distance, type of stroke, and the completion time of
each event. All available results of female and male ice
swimmers from season 2016/2017 to season 2019/2020
have been included. e last event in 2020, “2nd Open
Winter Swimming Championships of Karelia,” and all
IWSA World Cup events in season 2020/2021 have been
canceled due to travel limitations for international swim-
mers associated with the pandemic situation. e ambi-
ent temperature, humidity and barometric pressure were
taken from historical weather reports [19]. Data included
in the present study are presented in Table1.
Ice Swimming Events
e IWSA World Cup events feature three different
swimming strokes: butterfly, head-up breaststroke, and
freestyle. e butterfly stroke is only provided for 25m
races. Head-up breaststroke is a variant of the clas-
sic breaststroke typically performed in open water.
Swimming breaststroke with the head above the water
allows the swimmers to breathe without constraints and
gives them a better orientation. Especially in ice water,
the initial cold shock response and the likelihood of brain
blood flow disruption, resulting in dizziness and increas-
ing the risk of becoming unconscious and consequently
drowning, is reduced [20]. Athletes can participate in
25m, 50m, 100m and 200m races for this swimming
stroke. Swimmers who want to perform freestyle can par-
ticipate in races of distances including 25m, 50m, 100m,
200m, 450m and 1000m.
Water Temperature Categories
e water temperature is clearly defined into event cate-
gories A, B and C by the International Winter Swimming
Association for the IWSA World Cup [1]. Water tem-
perature category A is classified as ice water (IW), rang-
ing from a water temperature in Celsius of 2° up to +
(including). Category B is defined as freezing water (FW),
where temperatures lie between + 2.1° up to + (includ-
ing) Celsius. e third water temperature category, cat-
egory C, is described as cold water (CW), where events
occur at a water temperature between + 5.1° up to +
(including) Celsius. is classification of water tempera-
ture was considered for every race in this present study.
e same applies to the age groups of the participating
swimmers.
Age Group Categories
e IWSA introduced an age classification of 13 different
groups, named from A1 to J2. Category A1 includes all
swimmers under 15years of age; A2 defines the age from
15 to 19years of age. Category B (20–29) and C (30–39)
have an age range of 10years, whereas age category D
(40–44), E (45–49), F (50–54), G (55–59), H (60–64), I
(65–69), J (70–74) and J1 (75–79) have 5-year intervals.
e last category, J2, is defined for 80years and older.
ose classifications are defined in the rules of the IWSA
and are published on their homepage [1].
Statistical Analysis
Descriptive data were presented by mean, standard
deviation, maximum and minimum values or confi-
dence intervals. For descriptive purposes, the nation-
alities were divided into six groups. Five nationalities
were represented in the top 10 times in every season in
all swimming strokes and water categories. According
to Shapiro–Wilk and Levene’s test, data did not follow
a normal distribution nor had homogeneous variances.
e Mann–Whitney U test was used to compare race
time between swimming strokes of swimming (butter-
fly, freestyle or head-up breaststroke) and categories of
water (IW, FW or CW). In addition, the Kruskal–Wallis
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Oppermannetal. Sports Medicine - Open (2022) 8:63
H test was used to compare differences between water
categories for the same sex; multiple strokes pairwise
comparisons adjusted by Bonferroni correction were
performed to identify the effect size of the differences
between sexes. e level of significance set at 0.05.
SPSS version 26.0 (SPSS, Inc., Chicago, IL, USA) was
used for all statistical analyses.
Results
25m Events
A total of 6477 swimmers (2676 female and 3801 male),
competed between 2016 and 2020 in 25m races. Most
of the swimmers (46%) competed in the IW category
(n = 2980, 1305 female and 1675 male), followed by
the FW (32.4%, n = 2099, 767 female and 1332 male)
Table 1 Data included
All ocial results of the Winter Swimming World Cup from 2016 to 2020 were obtained from the IWSA website. *Canceled, no results available
Season Event City Data included Water temperature Ambient
temperature
(°C)
Humidity (%) Barometric
pressure (
hPa)
2015/2016 7th Jelgavas Roni Cup Jelgava Excluded* 5.13 87 1019.79
2015/2016 4th Big Chill Swim Windermere Excluded* 6.36 95 988.00
2015/2016 5th Scandinavian Winter Swim-
ming Championships Skellefteå Excluded* 2 100 992.21
2015/2016 7th Piritia Open Tallinn Excluded* 1.35 86 1004.22
2015/2016 10th Winter Swimming World
Championships 2016 Tyumen Excluded* 4 59 1018.99
2016/2017 8th Jelgavas Roni Cup Jelgava Included + 2.1 up to + 5 0.58 100 1012.80
2016/2017 1st Russian Pacific Winter Swim-
ming Festival Vladivostok Included + 2.1 up to + 5 4 93 1014.43
2016/2017 5th Big Chill Swim Windermere Included + 5.1 up to + 9 8.75 97 1016.70
2016/2017 3rd Taierzhuang International
Winter Swimming Festival Taierzhuang Included + 5,1 up to + 9 3 57 1024.00
2016/2017 6th Scandinavian Winter Swim-
ming Championships Skellefteå Included 2 up to + 2 10° C 86 1032.97
2016/2017 8th Pirita Open Tallinn Included 2 up to + 2 0.31 87 1001.24
2017/2018 9th Jelgavas Roni Cup Jelgava Included + 2.1 up to + 5 5.88 93 1007.80
2017/2018 2ndRussian Pacific Winter Swim-
ming Open Cup Vladivostok Included + 2.1 up to + 5 5 51 1018.43
2017/2018 3rd Minsk Open Cup Minsk Included 2 up to + 2 5.29 100 974.36
2017/2018 7th Scandinavian World Champi-
onships 2018 Skellefteå Included 2 up to + 2 7 100 1002.15
2017/2018 11th Winter Swimming World
Championships 2018 Tallinn Included 2 up to + 2 5.92 64 1001.24
2018/2019 10th Jelgavas Roni Cup Jelgava Included + 5.1 up to + 9 11.46 88 1018.79
2018/2019 Bled Winter Swimming World Cup
2019 Bled Included + 5.1 up to + 9 1.92 87 957.19
2018/2019 Skellefteå Dark& Cold 2019 Skellefteå Included 2 up to + 2 6 53 988.24
2018/2019 Petrozavodsk Russian Open
Championships 2019 Petrozavodsk Included 2 up to + 2 4 56 1011.46
2019/2020 11th Jelgavas Roni Cup Jelgava Included + 5.1 up to + 9 3.69 75 999.81
2019/2020 5th Tyumen Open Cup Tyumen Included + 2.1 up to + 5 9 86 985.45
2019/2020 8th Winter Spring- Swimming
(Daming Lake) International
Invitational
Jinan Included + 2.1 up to + 5 3 100 1016.37
2019/2020 12th Winter Swimming World
Championships Bled Included + 5.1 up to + 9 1.35 45 981.07
2019/2020 9th Scandinavian Winter Swim-
ming Championship Skellefteå Included 2 up to + 2 7 86 1002.15
2019/2020 2nd Open Winter Swimming
Championships of Karelia Karelia Canceled 7 53 1009.47
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Oppermannetal. Sports Medicine - Open (2022) 8:63
and CW (21.6%, n = 1398, 604 female and 794 male)
category.
Considering the entire sample, the butterfly stroke
(n = 1513) in the IW category had an overall mean
time of 00:19.95 ± 00:00.28 (minimum 00:19.39/maxi-
mum 00:20.50) mm:ss.ms, in the FW category had a
mean time of 00:21.63 ± 00:00.29 (00:20.59/00:21.74)
mm:ss.ms and in the CW category had a mean time of
00:20.52 ± 00:00.36 (00:19.82/00:21.23) mm:ss.ms. Free-
style (n = 1881) presented in IW category a mean time
of 00:19.76 ± 00:00.24 (00:19.30/00:20.23) mm:ss.ms,
in the FW category a mean time of 00:20.25 ± 00:00.28
(00:19.71/00:20.79) mm:ss.ms and in the CW category
a mean time of 00:19.26 ± 00:00.33 (00:18.62/00:19.90)
mm:ss.ms. In the most used swimming stroke head-
up breaststroke (n = 3083) in IW races had a mean
time of 00:25.57 ± 00:00.17 (00:25.24/00:25.90)
mm:ss.ms, in the FW category had a mean time of
00:26.35 ± 00:00.23 (00:25.90/00:26.79) mm:ss.ms and in
the CW category had a mean time of 00:25.87 ± 00:00.27
(00:25.35/00:26.40) mm:ss.ms. e mean time spend in
each stroke and water temperature category by each sex
are given in Table2.
Sex differences were observed between all the swim-
ming strokes for all water categories, and effect sizes
of the sex differences range from 0.34 to 0.45 (Fig.1).
Comparison among different strokes (25 m) for each
water category and sexes showed interesting results.
Head-up breaststroke was the slowest stroke (slower
than freestyle and butterfly) for both sexes and water cat-
egories (p < 0.05). e butterfly stroke was slower than
freestyle stroke for all water categories among the male
athletes (p < 0.05). On the other hand, for females, butter-
fly was no different from freestyle stroke for ice (p > 0.05)
and freezing waters (p > 0.05); however, it is slower than
freestyle for cold water (p < 0.05).
200 m Events
A total of 1089 swimmers (408 female and 681 male)
competed between 2016 and 2020 in 200m races. Most
of the swimmers (44.4%) competed in the IW category
(n = 483, 167 female and 316 male), followed by CW cat-
egory (34.5%, n = 376, 170 female and 206 male) and FW
(21.1%, n = 230, 71 female and 159 male).
Considering the entire sample, most competed
in swimming stroke freestyle (n = 724) in IW cat-
egory had an overall meantime of 03:33.31 ± 01:04.53
(01:56.14/07:34.48) mm:ss.ms, in FW category had a
mean time of 03:34.48 ± 01:06.97 (02:02.60/09:38.60)
mm:ss.ms and in CW category had a mean time of
03:14.78 ± 00:48.51 (01:59.49/06:32.85) mm:ss.ms. In
head-up breaststroke (n = 365) (there were 3083 swim-
mers in head-up breaststroke over 25m but just 365 over
200m) IW races had a mean time of 04:09.19 ± 01:01.80
(00:25.24/00:25.90) mm:ss.ms, FW category had a mean
time of 04:15.98 ± 01:05.42 (02:52.46/07:55.71) mm:ss.ms
and CW category had a mean time of 04:00.55 ± 00:49.55
(01:44.88/06:12.15) mm:ss.ms. e mean time spent in
Table 2 Meantime in each stroke and water temperature category by sex in 25 m races
Data expressed in (mm: ss. ms); *p < 0.05 (sex dierence for the same swimming stroke and water category)
Stroke Water category Sex n Mean time SD Minimum Maximum p Value Power Eect size
Butterfly Cold water Female 140 00:22.6 ± 00:07.0 00:56.8* 00:15.1 < 0.001 0.691 0.40
Male 220 00:18.5 ± 00:04.9 00:39.4 00:12.0
Freezing water Female 194 00:23.3 ± 00:07.4 01:05.5* 00:14.0 < 0.001 0.774 0.35
Male 372 00:19.0 ± 00:05.9 00:55.7 00:12.2
Ice water Female 221 00:21.2 ± 00:05.9 00:48.7* 00:13.8 < 0.001 0.714 0.32
Male 366 00:18.7 ± 00:06.3 01:15.6 00:11.6
Freestyle Cold water Female 183 00:21.4 ± 00:07.2 00:54.7* 00:14.0 < 0.001 0.858 0.42
Male 241 00:17.1 ± 00:04.5 00:37.1 00:12.0
Freezing water Female 224 00:22.5 ± 00:07.2 00:49.0* 00:13.2 < .001 .814 0.34
Male 411 00:18.0 ± 00:05.2 00:45.6 00:11.2
Ice water Female 326 00:22.4 ± 00:08.4 01:03.9* 00:13.1 < 0.001 0.987 0.39
Male 496 00:17.0 ± 00:04.5 00:46.2 00:11.0
Head-up breaststroke Cold water Female 281 00:28.7 ± 00:07.8 01:13.7* 00:16.7 < 0.001 0.990 0.45
Male 333 00:23.0 ± 00:06.1 00:55.6 00:14.9
Freezing water Female 349 00:29.4 ± 00:08.8 01:21.3* 00:13.3 < 0.001 0.990 0.42
Male 549 00:23.3 ± 00:06.9 00:57.2 00:14.4
Ice water Female 758 00:28.6 ± 00:08.0 01:08.5* 00:15.0 < 0.001 0.999 0.43
Male 813 00:22.6 ± 00:05.8 00:50.1 00:13.4
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Oppermannetal. Sports Medicine - Open (2022) 8:63
each stroke and water category by each sex are given in
Table3.
Sex differences were observed between all the swim-
ming strokes for all water categories, and effect sizes of
the sex differences range from 0.22 to 0.36 (Fig.2). Dif-
ferences among water categories for each stroke and sex
also are shown in Fig. 2. Comparison between 200 m
freestyle and head-up breaststroke showed that the
freestyle was a faster stroke for all the water categories
and sexes (p < 0.05).
Discussion
e present study investigated the sex difference in
swimming performance of female and male winter swim-
mers competing in the multiple stages of the Winter
Swimming World Cup since 2016. We hypothesized that
the sex gap in performance of winter swimming in water
below 9°C would decrease with an increasing swimming
distance in combination with lower water temperatures
and that this decrease would be dependent on the swim-
ming stroke used. e main results were that female
athlete presented significantly longer race times for all
strokes and water categories than male swimmers in 25m
and 200m events. e difference between the sexes was
greater in the 25m than in the 200m for all strokes and
water temperatures. Female athletes presented longer
race times in FW or CW than in IW for butterfly stroke,
while male athletes presented no difference among water
categories in 25m events. For freestyle stroke, male ath-
letes presented longer race times in FW than CW or IW,
while female athletes presented no difference among
water categories. Male and female athletes presented no
difference in race time among water categories for head-
up breaststroke.
Inuence ofSex onDierent Race Distances
A part of our hypothesis was that women would decrease
the performance gap in winter swimming over longer
distances. e study shows that male athletes were sig-
nificantly faster than female swimmers in butterfly, free-
style, and head-up breaststroke races over 25 m across
the three water temperature (CW, FW, IW) categories.
e finding that men were faster than women in sprint
distances is most probably due to the differences in
anthropometric characteristics such as body height [21],
body composition [22] (e.g., body mass, body mass index,
fat mass, body fat percentage, visceral adipose tissue
level, muscle mass, total body water), muscle thickness
[23] and muscle size [24] of men compared to women.
In general, women’s body composition showed lower
values in the body mass index, fat mass per kg, muscle
mass, visceral adipose tissue level but a higher body fat
percentage than men. Men may outperform women due
to the larger muscle mass and force production ability,
resulting in a more significant stroke force in the water
[25]. ese muscular enhancements result in a rightward
shift of the force–velocity curve, leading to faster finish-
ing times [26].
e energy cost to move forward increases with speed,
whether on land or water. However, in terrestrial sports,
the energy cost is lower than in water since resistive
Fig. 1 Meantime in each swimming stroke by water category for
both sexes in 25 m races. *Different between sexes (p < 0.05), #
different from the same sex in Cold water (p < 0.05), § different from
the same sex in Freezing water (p < 0.05), a Butterfly, b Freestyle, c
Head-up Breaststroke
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Page 7 of 11
Oppermannetal. Sports Medicine - Open (2022) 8:63
forces in water (hydrodynamic resistance, drag, lower
propelling efficiency) are larger than the aerodynamic
force on land and need to be overcome. e determi-
nants of the energy costs, like drag and efficiency, as
well as energy expenditure in its aerobic and anaerobic
components, play a role in the performance of athletes
[27]. In sprint races, energy is produced mainly on the
anaerobic system compared to endurance events, where
the resynthesis of ATP relies more on the aerobic system
(65%) than on the anaerobic (35%) [12, 28]. Sex differ-
ences for the aerobic system are recorded to be smaller
than for anaerobic.
Although muscle mass, anaerobic power and force pro-
duction are significant predictors of explosive and sprint
ability in swimmers [26, 2931], anthropometric charac-
teristics (e.g., body height, body weight, body fat percent-
age, aerobic capacity) become an important contributor
with increasing race distance [21, 32, 33]. e average
height for Olympic swimmers in 2016 was 188 cm for
men and 175cm for women [34]. While not measured in
the current study, male swimmers tend to be taller than
their female competitors. Differences in average height
are often associated with higher muscle mass, resulting
in longer limb levers and, therefore, a more potent strok-
ing force and faster performance on a sprint distance in
swimming [2125, 34].
Secondly, previous evidence suggested that in longer
distances in cold water temperatures, such as the 200m,
we were expecting that women’s higher level of body
fat, giving them a better buoyancy and insulation [35,
36], would have a positive effect on their race time com-
pared to men [2, 9, 37]. e present study revealed that
the effect size of the sex differences on 200m was smaller
than on 25m for all strokes and water temperatures, sup-
porting our hypothesis. e assumption was based on
scientific research showing female swimmers recorded
thicker skinfold scores and, therefore, more subcutane-
ous fat. is causes women to retain more heat within
the body for a longer duration and delay muscle cooling
Table 3 Meantime for each swimming stroke and water category by sex in 200 m races
Data expressed as (mm:ss.ms); *p < 0.05 (sex dierence for the same swimming stroke and water category
Stroke Water category Sex n Mean time SD Minimum Maximum p Value Power Eect size
Freestyle Cold water Female 95 03:33.0 ± 00:53.3 02:16.2 06:32.9* < 0.001 0.266 0.36
Male 107 02:58.6 ± 00:37.1 01:59.5 05:17.4
Freezing water Female 51 03:53.0 ± 01:05.3 02:19.1 07:02.9* 0.004 0.083 0.22
Male 118 03:26.5 ± 01:06.3 02:02.6 09:38.6
Ice water Female 124 03:55.0 ± 01:13.4 02:18.1 07:34.5* < 0.001 0.158 0.24
Male 229 03:21.5 ± 00:55.9 01:56.1 07:14.6
Head-up breaststroke Cold water Female 75 04:19.5 ± 00:47.7 02:53.7 06:12.1* < 0.001 0.171 0.34
Male 99 03:46.2 ± 00:46.2 01:44.9 05:40.9
Freezing water Female 20 04:58.5 ± 01:24.4 03:18.8 07:55.7* 0.004 0.080 0.36
Male 41 03:55.2 ± 00:41.1 02:52.5 05:39.5
Ice water Female 43 04:22.6 ± 01:01.6 02:24.1 07:50.0* 0.010 0.128 0.23
Male 87 04:02.5 ± 01:01.2 02:48.2 08:40.3
Fig. 2 Meantime for each swimming stroke by water category for
both sexes in 200 m races. *Different between sexes (p < 0.05), †
different from Cold Water for the same sex (p < 0.05), a Freestyle, b
Head-up Breaststroke
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Page 8 of 11
Oppermannetal. Sports Medicine - Open (2022) 8:63
to a fatiguing level so that they may retain their swim
speed for a longer time in cold water than males with less
body fat [38]. A study investigating the body composi-
tion in female and male open water swimmers during a
competition in Zurich Lake revealed that women have
around 12% more body fat than men, which gives them
a better basis in cold water over longer distances [39].
Besides that there is evidence that women have different
metabolic and hormonal responses to cold water immer-
sion than men [40]. However, a significant difference in
the thermogenic response could not be detected. Cold
acclimation showed to increase the brown adipose tis-
sue activity and non-shivering thermogenesis [41]. us,
one can postulate that women with a larger body fat per-
centage would benefit from that thermogenesis more
than men. Other sources report superior cold tolerance
of women compared to men when resting in cold water
[42]. Previous experience seems to be an important fac-
tor apart from anthropometric characteristics for success
in ice swimming, especially over longer distances [43].
Furthermore, research showed that psychological
skills training could help swimmers suppress the drive
to breathe during cold water immersion [44]. However,
in this study comparing the performance of female and
male athletes on a sprint distance of 25 m to a mid-
dle distance of 200m, the length of the middle-distance
track was relatively short. e positive effect of women’s
higher level of body fat, which gives them better insula-
tion in cold water and induces a trunk incline giving the
body a more streamlined and efficient position as well
as better body buoyancy, might not have developed fully
over a distance of 200m [45]. Besides that, time in water
over a distance of 50m and 200 m might be too short
since body core temperature during ice swimming first
increases and might not have dropped seriously [16, 43].
Comparing the present study results with elite swimming
competitions in average temperatures, for example, at the
Olympic Games 2020 in Tokyo, female and male Olym-
pic participants only need half of the time for the same
track [46]. Also, sex differences in ice swimmers for 1km
Ice Event were higher than pool swimmers [16]. Future
studies need to investigate the performance of men and
women on a sprint distance to longer distances (i.e.,
450 m, 1000 m). Furthermore, the body composition,
core temperature, hormonal activity and especially the fat
mass of female and male ice swimmers competing at the
international level should be scientifically investigated.
Sex Dierences inSwimming Speed forButtery Stroke
inRelation toWater Category
An interesting finding was that women could not close
the sex gap over 25 m butterfly stroke. is is possi-
bly due to the muscular and energetic demands of the
butterfly stroke. Compared to freestyle and backstroke,
butterfly stroke has a significantly increased energy cost
and anaerobic contribution [47]. Consequently, success
in sprint butterfly is predicated on an anaerobic capac-
ity determined by body composition [47, 48], specifically
muscle mass and net force production ability. As a result,
men are likely able to outperform women in such a short
event requiring maximal force production.
It is important to note that men are able to produce
faster completion times in butterfly stroke over 25m; it is
not possible to compare over longer butterfly distances.
Currently, the IWSA only offers the 25m event distance.
Interestingly, the butterfly event has the lowest participa-
tion rate compared to freestyle and head-up breaststroke
races over 25m. e number of women competing in this
event was considerably lower than the number of men
(555 women and 958 men). erefore, it is possible that
this difference may contribute to this significant differ-
ence in performance. However, as an additional result
of our study, we found that women’s butterfly swimming
speed was faster in IW ( 2 °C to + 2°C) than in FW or
CW (over + 2°–9 °C) and closest to the performance of
men with a mean time difference of 2.55s. Regardless
of gender, swimmers may exhibit a cold shock response,
but the rate of muscle cooling would be reflected in the
insulation from subcutaneous fat. erefore, men’s times
may slow to a greater extent than women’s in IW. In con-
trast to women, men presented no differences in butterfly
swimming speed for the different water categories over
the sprint distance of 25m. Further studies might investi-
gate the sex difference in butterfly swimming over longer
distances to reveal whether an improvement in women’s
performance can be observed over a longer distance in
this discipline as well, especially in IW, where the perfor-
mance gap appeared to be smallest. Besides that, it would
be of great interest to examine different characteristics of
the swimmers in terms of age and training status.
Sex Dierences inSwimming Speed forFreestyle Stroke
inRelation toWater Category
We can confirm our hypothesis that the sex gap in water
below 9°C would decrease with an increasing swimming
distance since the effect size of the difference between
the sexes was greater in the 25m race than in the 200m
race for all water categories when swimming freestyle.
Women’s performance was most similar to men during
the swim on a middle distance of 200m in FW with an
effect size of 0.22. Interestingly, freestyle is faster than
butterfly stroke over 25m for female athletes only in the
cold and freezing water category. In addition, freestyle
is the most popular stroke used by swimmers during
training [49]. In contrast to freestyle, the breaststroke is
a less popular stroke; those with hip and knee problems
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Page 9 of 11
Oppermannetal. Sports Medicine - Open (2022) 8:63
may struggle to breaststroke without pain [50]. is may
explain why more swimmers take part in the 200m free-
style events (n = 724) of the IWSA World Cup events
than in the 200m head-up breaststroke events (n = 365).
Future studies might compare the best female to the best
male athletes in this discipline to find the true sex differ-
ence. Furthermore, the race times of winter swimmers in
the morning and afternoon might be compared since the
time of practice is an essential factor in the economy of
movement. Studies showed that Olympic swimmers were
faster in the late afternoon than in the morning [51].
Secondly, the result of the present study confirms
that freestyle is a faster stroke than butterfly or head-up
breaststroke for male athletes across all water catego-
ries. Interestingly, women’s performance during freestyle
swimming in relation to the water categories’ speed
remained unchanged, although men’s freestyle swim-
ming speed over 25m and 200m was the slowest in FW
(+ 2.1 °C to + 5 °C). Despite adequate preparation and
conditioning, rapid changes in environmental conditions
(i.e., cold water immersion) have been shown to affect
neuromuscular and musculoskeletal systems [2, 52, 53].
Women may have an anthropometric advantage due to
shorter stature and a higher body fat percentage, which
confers more excellent cold water resistance compared to
their male counterparts.
Sex Dierences inSwimming Speed forHead‑Up
Breaststroke inRelation toWater Category
Furthermore, we can confirm our hypothesis that the
sex gap in water below 9 °C would decrease with an
increasing swimming distance, also for the head-up
breaststroke. Men were faster than female swimmers in
all water categories, but the effect size of the difference
between sexes was greater in the 25m, ranging from 0.43
to 0.45 than in the 200m where the effect size between
sexes ranges from 0.23 to 0.36. Especially in the IW cat-
egory, it is noticeable that female swimmers reduced the
effect size of sex differences from 0.43 in 25m races to
0.23 in 200 m races. Generally, head-up breaststroke
swimmers’ highest tethered swimming force values are
recorded [25, 54, 55]. is can be explained by the pow-
erful leg kick of this stroke compared to other swim
strokes where the leg’s action is primarily to keep body
balance [54]. However, the head-up breaststroke appears
to be the slowest stroke compared to other swimming
strokes [56]. e present study confirms that head-up
breaststroke is the slowest stroke for men and women in
all water categories. is might be the over-water recov-
ery of the arms and lower continuity of the synchroniza-
tion of arms and legs. Moreover, female and male athletes
presented no difference in race time among the water
categories. Future studies should compare the body fat
of women and men competing in IW to determine if the
smallest difference between sexes in IW is related to body
composition.
Limitations andImplications forFuture Research
A limitation of this study is the short time frame of four
years and the low number of female athletes. A compara-
tively lower number of swimmers participated in longer
events like 450m and 200m than in the 25m. We assume
that the sex difference will be even lower with a higher
number of successful women. Further studies should
include longer distances (i.e., 450m, 1000m) to confirm
the decreasing sex difference with an increasing distance.
Furthermore, this study is exclusively retrospective and
descriptive. Potential important variables such as body
weight, body height, previous experience, training status,
motivation and weather conditions were not considered.
Conclusions
In ice swimming in water temperatures below 9°C, male
athletes were generally faster than females for all strokes
and water categories in the 25m and 200m events of the
IWSA World Cup, but women were closing the gap at the
longer distance. e effect size of the sex differences on
200m (0.22–0.36) was smaller than on 25m (0.34–0.45)
for all strokes and water temperatures. Colder water tem-
peratures do not always mean slower times; however,
there were differences related to stroke.
Abbreviations
CW: Water category C; Cold Water + 5.1° up to + 9° of Celsius; FW: Water
category B; Freezing Water + 2.1° up to + 5° of Celsius; IISA: International Ice
Swimming Association; IW: Water category A; Ice Water 2° up to + 2° of
Celsius; IWSA: International Winter Swimming Association.
Acknowledgements
Not applicable.
Author Contributions
Conceptualization was done by BK. Data curation was done by BK and JO.
Formal analysis was carried out by MSA, AS, RLV and CABdL. Methodology was
done by BK and JO. Writing—original draft were done by BK, JO and LH. All
authors read and approved the final manuscript.
Funding
This research received no external funding.
Availability of Data and Materials
The swimmers’ data were downloaded from the official IWSA website (https://
iwsa. world).
Declarations
Ethics Approval and Consent to Participate
The study was conducted according to the guidelines of the Declaration of
Helsinki. This study was approved by the Institutional Review Board of Kanton
St. Gallen, Switzerland, with a waiver of the requirement for informed consent
Content courtesy of Springer Nature, terms of use apply. Rights reserved.
Page 10 of 11
Oppermannetal. Sports Medicine - Open (2022) 8:63
of the participants as the study involved the analysis of publicly available data
(EKSG 01-06-2010).
Consent for Publication
All authors consent to the publication of this manuscript.
Competing interests
Janne Oppermann, Beat Knechtle, Aldo Seffrin, Rodrigo Luiz Vancini, Claudio
Andre Barbosa de Lira, Lee Hill and Marilia Santos Andrade declare that they
have no competing interests.
Institutional Review Board Statement
This study was approved by the Institutional Review Board of Kanton St. Gal-
len, Switzerland, with a waiver of the requirement for informed consent of the
participants as the study involved the analysis of publicly available data.
Author details
1 Institute of Primary Care, University Hospital Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland.
2 Medbase St. Gallen Am Vadianplatz, Vadianstrasse 26, 9001 St. Gallen, Swit-
zerland. 3 Department of Physiology, Federal University of São Paulo, São Paulo,
Brazil. 4 Center for Physical Education and Sports, Federal University of Espírito
Santo, Vitoria, Brazil. 5 Human and Exercise Physiology Division, Faculty of Physi-
cal Education and Dance, Federal University of Goiás, Goiânia, Brazil. 6 Division
of Gastroenterology and Nutrition, Department of Pediatrics, McMaster
University, Hamilton, Canada.
Received: 1 January 2022 Accepted: 18 April 2022
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