The men’s 400m freestyle at the 2016 Rio Olympics is just what you’d expect from an Olympic race - tight competition, impressive performances, and overall just exciting to watch, and analyze. The competition in the middles lanes, in particular - Conor Dwyer, Mack Horton, and Sun Yang - was not only a thrilling show, but a race which provided plenty of insight.
In the first 50m, Horton and Yang matched each other stroke per stroke, taking the exact same number of strokes, at nearly identical stroke rates and distance per stroke (DPS). The one difference in their first lap was the time underwater off the dive, Horton breaking out earlier by roughly 0.3 seconds.
Off the walls, Horton maintained the length of his strokes, but slowed down the speed in which he pulled them, taking 3 strokes more than he did on the first lap. Meanwhile, Yang maintained his stroke rate, but dropped his DPS and shortened his strokes, taking an additional 5 strokes. Overall, Horton pulled with the highest stroke efficiency in the heat, with Yang’s stroke index just a little below his. They were consistent in this strategy throughout majority of the event, Horton staying ahead of Yang, who was gradually closing the 0.44 second gap from the first lap.
While Yang was trying to bridge the gap between them, Horton was slowly catching up to Dwyer, who was top seed of the race. Dwyer started off the race strong, swimming the fastest speed the first 50m to take an early lead. He stroked at a moderately fast pace with a fairly high DPS, but after the first lap, his DPS dropped, adding 1 extra stroke in every succeeding lap. Though he supplemented this with a slightly faster rate after the 100m mark, he was no longer at the top position.
At the 250m mark, the race started to get even more interesting. Yang was now only 0.05 seconds behind Horton, and at this point, they were both able to overtake Dwyer. As they charged into the final 100m, Horton and Yang increased their stroke rate, with a resulting increase in speed. Though he was able to lower his final splits, Yang’s DPS and stroke index declined, while Horton barely dropped his DPS, even increasing his efficiency on the final lap, securing him the gold.
This race highlights is the importance of consistency, efficiency and proper pacing, especially in longer distances. While Dwyer started the race strong, he was unable to maintain the speed and efficiency of his strokes throughout the entire distance. Horton, on the other hand, had fairly consistent metrics throughout. He paced himself and took his time gaining the lead, but the high efficiency of his strokes, sustained him through to the end, leaving him with enough strength to speed through the end.
It was an extremely tight match between Horton and Yang, who swam a similar race. They faced off once again the next year, at the 2017 FINA World Championships. You can read that race analysis here.
You can see the results, along with the detailed metrics of this race here.