Getting to 10,000 Hours – Becoming a Swimming Expert

Perhaps some of you have read the great Malcom Gladwell book, “Outliers”. One of the pieces that Gladwell touches on is that successful people put in the work. They aren’t suddenly successful overnight, but rather they commit many hours to their sport, profession or skill. According to Gladwell the 10,000 hour mark seems to be the point at which a person becomes an expert in their ways.

So for the swimming world, how long does 10,000 hours take? Let’s follow through the life of a typical dedicated swimmer and see how the math adds up over time:

    Age 6: Joined year-round swim clubYoung age-group swimmers are limited in their practices and workout schedule. So from age 6-9 we will assume 1.5 hour workouts 3 times a week. The season is around 44 weeks long for these swimmers, totaling 198 hours per year.

    In the 3-year span from age 6-9, the swimmer has totaled 594 hours

    Age 9: Moved up to a new training group

    As swimmers develop they move up within the club to faster and more dedicated groups. So from age 9-12 we will assume 2 hour workouts 4 times a week. In a 44 week swim season the annual total is 352 hours.

    In the 3-year span from age 9-12, the swimmer has totaled 1,056 hours
    Running Total (6-12): 1,650 hours

    Age 12: Moved up to a new training group

    Moving to another new group means more pool time. From age 12-15 we assume 6 x 2 hour workouts per week. The season is also extended to 46 weeks, totaling 552 swimming hours per year.

    In the 3-year span from age 12-15, the swimmer has totaled 1,656 hours
    Running Total (6-15): 3,306 hours

    Age 15 and Beyond: Senior Level

    Around age 15 swimmers usually decide that swimming is right for them. The typical week of swimming includes 5 normal 2 hour sessions every afternoon, 3 morning swims (1.5 hours each), and 1 long 3.5 hour Saturday practice. This total is 18 hours per week, which equals 828 hours annually for a 46 week season.

    Cumulative Total at age 18: 5,790 hours
    Cumulative Total at age 21: 8,274 hours
    Cumulative Total at age 23 years, 1 month and 1 day: 10,000 hours

    That is over 17 years of swimming!

I know my math is littered with assumptions. I haven’t considered swim meets, taper workouts, holiday training, or injuries. However, the data is still interesting to see and you should get the idea that it takes a lot of time in the pool to be successful. For example, if you miss just 10 minutes for each practice, then it will take you nearly 1.5 years longer to hit 10,000 hours!

It should also be noted that just because you are putting in the hours doesn’t mean that you are actually reaping the benefits. Swimming long sets with poor technique will only make you an expert in poor technique.

So is Gladwell right about the 10,000 hours? Maybe, but I know a lot of good swimmers (and Olympians) that started swimming at age 12 or 17 and nowhere near 10,000 hours. What are your thoughts? Leave your comments below.

- Mark