How Fast Do Elite Swimmers Swim? (Data included)

When it comes to swimming, most people are interested in one thing: how fast can they go?

It is very easy to become fascinated with the swim speeds of elite swimmers. While elite swimmers can make the act of swimming look effortless, many people are surprised to learn just how quickly these athletes can swim.

On average, elite swimmers such as Michael Phelps, have hit speeds of over 4.5mph (miles per hour), which is twice the swim speed of an average, non-professional swimmer, whose swim speed is typically around 2mph (miles per hour).

In this article, I want to outline how fast elite swimmers swim and try to put that into context, including:

  • How many MPH do Olympic swimmers swim?
  • How fast can elite swimmers swim a mile?
  • How do Olympic swimmers swim so fast?

How Many MPH Do Olympic Swimmers Swim?

MPH stands for “miles per hour” and just like a speedometer on a car, we can measure how fast our elite swimmers can go.

Typically over a 50m freestyle, which is the fastest swimming race, Olympic male swimmers can keep an average pace of 5.16 mph and female swimmers can keep an average pace of 4.62mph.

Below is a list of some of the worlds top swimmers and their swim speeds: [source]

Swimmer NameGenderSwim StrokeTimeSwim Speed (mph)
Caeleb DresselMale50m Freestyle21.07 secs5.30834
Male50m Freestyle20.91 secs5.34896
Male50m Freestyle20.94 secs5.3413
Male50m Freestyle21.11 secs5.29829
Male50m Freestyle21.19 secs5.27828 
Female50m Freestyle23.67 secs4.72526
Emma McKeonFemale50m Freestyle23.81 secs4.69747
Female50m Freestyle23.73 secs4.71331
Female50m Freestyle23.75 secs4.70934
Female50m Freestyle23.79 secs4.70142
This table shows how fast Olympic swimmers swim the 50m freestyle in mph

You may not be impressed with these swim speeds, but the table above lists the top speeds for some of our greatest swimmers.

If miles per hour (mph) doesn’t really mean anything to you, let’s put this in context so you can see how the speeds of elite swimmers compare to other sports, for example, running.

Here is a table listing the average walking speeds, jogging speeds, running speeds and cycling speeds of the average city person so you can get some context to how fast our Olympians are actually swimming. [source]

ActivitySpeed [mph]
Swimming [Elite]4 – 6 mph
Walking3 – 4 mph
Jogging4- 6 mph
Running6 – 8 mph
Road Cycling15 mph
This table shows how the speed of walking and other activates compare to the speed of swimming

How Fast Can Elite Swimmers Swim A Mile?

As a general rule, elite male swimmers can swim a mile in approximately 12 minutes and elite female swimmers can swim a mile in approximately 13 minutes.

Using the same chart and data, we can calculate on average how long it would take these top elite swimmers to swim a mile.

It is really unlikely that these elite swimmers will maintain their top speed for the entire distance of a mile.

They will slow down slightly over the longer distance.

Therefore, I have included a 5% margin of error, showing the absolute fastest they could swim a mile if they maintained their super human speeds and then, adding an extra 5% in time assuming that they will slow down about 5% over the longer distance.

Swimmer NameGenderSwim StrokeTime To Swim One Mile
[At Max Speed]
Time To Swim One Mile
[5% Slower Speed]
Caeleb DresselMale50m Freestyle11.3029312711.86808
Male50m Freestyle11.217099811.77795
Male50m Freestyle11.233193211.79485
Male50m Freestyle11.3243891311.8906
Male50m Freestyle11.3673048711.93567
Female50m Freestyle12.697692613.33258
Emma McKeonFemale50m Freestyle12.7727951313.41143
Female50m Freestyle12.729879413.36637
Female50m Freestyle12.7406083313.37764
Female50m Freestyle12.762066213.40017
This table shows how long it takes top Olympian swimmers to swim one mile, based on my speed calculations

How Do Olympic Swimmers Swim So Fast?

There is a lot of debate about what is the best way to swim in order to swim the fastest.

From hand entry position, to head position and everything else, sports scientists have debated this with often conflicting opinions.

Adrian Bejan, Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, performed one of my favourite analyses which gives us some insight into the science behind fast swimming. [source]

Two very common stroke styles in the front crawl are:

  • A deep catch stroke
  • A sculling stroke

Although both strokes have their place, recent studies suggest it is the deep catch stroke that can help with greater speed in sprint swimming.

With a deep catch stroke, the arm enters the water, perpendicular to the direction of movement, then reaches as far forward as possible, and plunges as deep as possible.

Then you simply pull back in a simple paddle motion.

Keeping your fingers slightly apart has been shown to create extra propulsion because of the viscosity effects of the thin water layer between the fingers, effectively increasing the surface area of the hand which will increase pull force. [source]

Besides analysing their hand movements, elite swimmers will analyse their legs movements.

It has been found that the ankles contribute the most to the power of the dolphin kick. According to research, 90% of the power from the dolphin kick comes from the ankles and feet, and not our great big leg muscles. [source]

It seems that flexible ankles are the secret sauce of swimming fast!

Final Thoughts

It is amazing to consider how fast elite swimmers can swim.

Although a swim speed of around 6mph may not seem like a lot, these elite swimmers are swimming at the pace of a light jog which is incredible.

While you may never reach Phelps’ speed of 4.5mph (miles per hour), by following some simple tips and techniques, you can certainly get closer to the average swimming speed of a professional athlete by working on your technique.

Are you a fast swimmer? Check out this article which shows how the average swimmer compares to these super human elites.

Emma Moore

Hi, I am Emma, and I am obsessed with all watersports, from swimming to surfing and everything in between. I spend my free time in the water or preparing for my next water travel adventure.

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