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Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Decisions, Decisions While Leading The Pack

Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.

Sometimes a great athlete makes a sustained break like Jordan Wilimovsky at the 2015 FINA World Championships or a strategic surge like Oussama Mellouli at the 2012 Olympic 10K marathon swim and are able to pull away from the lead pack. In these cases, the superior athlete with speed and stamina in excess are able to swim away from the pack.

But in many cases from an elite competition to a competitive masters race when a lone swimmer is followed by a pack, it is the lone swimmer who is swallowed up by the trailing pack especially towards the end of the race.

In our observations of several hundreds of competitive races around the world in both freshwater and salt water, in both calm and turbulent conditions, in both professional and amateur races, this is especially true in races where there are loop courses, but it is also true in point-to-point and out-and-back courses.

Of course, the pack is able to draft off one another and push each other emotionally. This gives the pack significantly advantages over the solo leader since the sole leader has no one to draft off of and makes solo navigational decisions. Meanwhile in response, the pack literally makes an effective collective decision on the best course to take. This phenomena seems to be rooted in the animal kingdom.

A recent paper in Applied Animal Behaviour Science [Isolation impairs cognition in a social fish by Manuela Lombardi Brandão, Victoria A. Braithwaite, and Eliane Gonçalves-de-Freitas] reports that fish in group settings are able to learn better and faster than single fish swimming alone. Scientists have identified that schooling fish observe and learn from each other and have evidence that it is related to spatial learning.

To test this theory, scientists divided a school of fish into 14 social fish and 15 loners. They kept the social fish grouped together while they placed the loners into single-fish isolation tanks. Both groups swam through a simple T-shaped maze with yellow marks identifying food and green marks indicating no food. 50% of socialized fish learned to associate yellow with food while only 20% of the 15 isolated fish were able to learn the same.

Swim as a loner or swim in a school - which do you prefer in a competitive environment?

Copyright © 2015 by World Open Water Swimming Association

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