How Much Does Taper Matter?

by Andrew Mering 4

May 10th, 2020 College

With the world shutting down, we’re reaching into our archives and pulling some of our favorite stories from the SwimSwam print edition to share online. If you’d like to read more of this kind of story, you can subscribe to get a print (and digital) version of SwimSwam Magazine here. This story was originally published in the 2016 College Preview edition of SwimSwam Magazine.

Taper: one of the few words in the English language that trumps an all-you-can-eat buffet to set a swimmer’s heart aflutter. Swimmers have their own taper superstitions and rituals. Coaches have their own taper secrets and stories of that huge unexpected time drop. The legendary Eddie Reese says that taper is an art no one really understands.

Everyone knows tapered swimmers go faster, but by how much?

To answer the question I grabbed every time swum in the NCAA over the last three seasons and defined a tapered time as a swimmer’s best time in an event between their conference and national meets.* Division 1 men and women are an average of 2% and 1.3% faster, respectively, at season-ending taper meets than their previous season best time. This comparison is useful when reading top times lists and big meet psych sheets to try and guess how swimmers will perform. But it doesn’t really describe a taper. Many teams taper for mid season meets, so comparing in season best times to taper times doesn’t really capture the effect. There are occasional cases of teams going slower than their in-season best times. One example is the Arizona men in 2014. After their coach resigned mid season, they were .2% slower than their in-season best times at Pac 12’s and D1 Championships.

Median times are a better baseline. A swimmer’s median time during the season should represent their typical unrested swim. At end of season meets, D1 swimmers’ median in season times drop an average of 4.2% (22,061 tapered events since 2014) for men and 3.6%. (32,839) for women. Division 3 swimmers drop substantially more time from their median in season times. D3 men drop 4.8% (27,208) and women drop 4.1% (30,395). Division 2 swimmers land in the middle. D2 men drop 4.3% (10,135) and women drop 3.8% (12,811).

There is a lot of variability between teams and within-teams year to year. Here are the time drops from median in season times by three D1 women’s teams over the last three years:

2013-14 2014-15 2015-16
California 4.0% 4.8% 3.9%
USC 1.7% 2.9% 2.6%
Wisconsin 4.1% 3.4% 2.0%

Comparing end of season times to in season times can give some insight into a team’s training cycle and style. D1 swimmers are the most broken down in October and January, and swim fast at meets in November and December. Here’s the average difference between D1 swimmers’ median time each month and their tapered times over the last 3 years:

October November December January
Women 4.6% 2.7% 2.1% 4.4%
Men 5.4% 3.6% 2.5% 4.9%

Swimmers drop the least time in freestyle. The smallest drops of any event come in the mile where swimmers only drop 2.5% for men and 1.8% for women. The largest freestyle time drops are in the 500 free at 4.1% for men and 3.5% for women. Here’s the full list of event by event time drops from median in season time by D1 swimmers since 2014:

Women Men
50 Free 3.4% 3.6%
100 Free 3.4% 3.8%
200 Free 3.2% 3.7%
500 Free 3.5% 4.1%
1650 Free 1.8% 2.5%
100 Back 4.2% 4.5%
200 Back 4.1% 4.8%
100 Breast 4.3% 4.8%
200 Breast 4.0% 5.4%
100 Fly 4.0% 4.3%
200 Fly 3.4% 4.2%
200 IM 3.8% 4.6%
400 IM 2.8% 3.9%

D1 Women

2016 Taper Time vs Best In Season Time, Median In Season Time and Median Time in October, November, December, and January.

Best Time Median Time October November December January
Illinois 0.3% 3.9% 3.8% 1.0% 4.0%
Indiana 0.7% 4.3% 5.2% 4.3% 1.8% 4.5%
Iowa -0.5% 3.5% 3.7% 3.8% -0.1% 3.4%
Michigan 2.1% 3.2% 3.3% 3.5% 2.4% 3.3%
Michigan St 0.7% 3.7% 3.7% 1.8% 2.1% 3.5%
Minnesota 1.3% 2.1% 3.9% 3.1% 2.4% 3.4%
Nebraska 0.6% 2.6% 6.0% 1.1% 2.0% 5.1%
Northwestern 1.9% 5.4% 4.5% 3.4% 5.1% 3.6%
Ohio St 1.3% 4.0% 4.0% 3.3% 3.8% 3.2%
Penn St 0.4% 2.8% 3.2% 3.1% 0.5% 4.0%
Purdue 0.6% 3.4% 3.8% 1.1% 3.5%
Rutgers 0.3% 4.4% 4.7% 1.5% 1.7% 5.1%
Wisconsin 0.3% 3.1% 3.2% 3.9% 0.8% 2.8%
Boston College -0.6% 4.8% 4.4% 0.0% 1.9% 4.7%
Duke 0.4% 2.7% 3.1% 0.9% 2.4% 3.4%
Florida St 0.0% 3.8% 3.6% 3.0% 0.3% 3.8%
Georgia Tech 1.1% 4.8% 4.4% 2.4% 4.8% 4.1%
Louisville 1.0% 4.4% 5.0% 2.6% 4.3%
Miami FL 0.5% 2.0% 3.6% 1.7% 0.9% 3.4%
NC State 2.1% 4.0% 4.3% 3.3% 3.9% 4.5%
Notre Dame 0.5% 2.9% 4.0% 1.0% 2.2% 3.3%
Pittsburgh -0.1% 3.4% 3.7% 2.2% 0.2% 3.9%
UNC 2.3% 4.3% 3.3% 3.0% 4.0%
Virginia 0.6% 2.4% 3.8% 4.0% 0.7% 4.1%
Virginia Tech 1.1% 3.8% 4.8% 2.8% 4.1%
Alabama 0.9% 4.3% 3.3% 1.4% 2.3% 4.7%
Arkansas 0.2% 3.0% 4.6% 1.1% 3.0% 3.9%
Auburn 0.3% 3.3% 3.1% 2.6% 0.7% 3.4%
Florida 0.3% 1.9% 4.5% 1.5% 4.0%
Georgia 0.6% 3.5% 4.6% 3.4% 0.9% 3.4%
Kentucky 0.7% 5.0% 5.0% 2.2% 4.6%
LSU 0.8% 3.9% 4.9% 2.3% 2.9%
Missouri 0.6% 5.6% 4.5% 2.9% 3.3%
South Carolina 0.9% 3.5% 4.3% 1.8% 4.4%
Tennessee 1.1% 4.9% 4.4% 2.7% 2.2% 4.7%
Texas A&M 0.9% 3.9% 5.1% 2.6% 6.8% 3.7%
Vanderbilt 0.3% 4.8% 4.4% 5.4% 1.0% 3.8%
Iowa State 0.9% 3.4% 4.9% 1.7% 0.9% 4.9%
Kansas 0.8% 4.3% 4.3% 1.4% 4.1% 4.8%
TCU 1.3% 4.7% 2.1% 2.7% 3.7%
Texas 0.3% 2.9% 3.8% 2.7% 0.7% 3.0%
West Virginia 1.3% 4.0% 4.4% 1.6% 2.4% 4.4%
Arizona 0.1% 3.2% 4.2% 4.1% 0.6% 4.5%
Arizona St 0.8% 3.8% 3.1% 2.5% 3.8% 3.2%
California 1.9% 4.5% 5.2% 3.8% 2.5% 3.9%
Oregon St 0.3% 0.7% 3.5% 1.4% 3.2% 4.7%
USC 0.6% 1.7% 5.0% 4.1% 0.9% 3.1%
Stanford 1.4% 4.1% 5.1% 2.2% 3.3% 4.1%
UCLA 0.6% 2.9% 3.8% 2.5% 0.9% 3.4%
Utah 1.2% 4.0% 4.7% 2.5% 2.0% 4.8%
Washington St. 0.4% 3.6% 3.5% 1.7% 4.5% 3.3%

D1 Men

2016 Taper Time vs Best In Season Time, Median In Season Time and Median Time in October, November, December, and January:

Best Time Median Time October November December January
Indiana 1.3% 3.9% 5.2% 4.7% 1.8% 5.1%
Iowa 1.3% 3.4% 4.4% 4.7% 1.6% 4.1%
Michigan 2.3% 4.3% 3.7% 4.3% 3.2% 4.1%
Michigan St 0.9% 3.0% 5.6% 1.6% 2.4% 4.3%
Minnesota 2.0% 2.1% 3.9% 3.1% 3.1% 3.4%
Northwestern 3.0% 4.7% 5.5% 4.1% 4.1%
Ohio St 2.1% 5.3% 6.1% 4.2% 2.1% 4.8%
Penn St 1.3% 4.3% 4.5% 4.0% 1.7% 4.7%
Purdue 2.0% 3.6% 5.2% 2.8% 2.5% 4.9%
Wisconsin 1.6% 3.5% 4.6% 5.3% 2.0% 4.1%
Boston College 1.0% 4.7% 6.0% 1.4% 2.3% 5.8%
Duke 1.3% 3.3% 4.1% 1.3% 0.6% 4.0%
Florida St 0.6% 5.4% 5.6% 3.4% 1.0% 4.1%
Georgia Tech 1.6% 4.6% 5.4% 2.4% 6.0% 4.8%
Louisville 0.7% 3.7% 6.2% 2.8% 1.8% 4.9%
NC State 3.0% 5.2% 5.9% 4.3% 3.5% 4.6%
Notre Dame 3.2% 4.3% 6.0% 5.0% 5.1%
Pittsburgh -0.1% 2.4% 4.1% 3.0% 0.3% 4.3%
UNC 2.2% 4.0% 3.5% 2.9% 4.1%
Virginia 1.2% 3.8% 5.1% 4.7% 1.1% 4.6%
Virginia Tech 2.3% 5.5% 5.9% 3.8% 4.4% 4.6%
Alabama 1.4% 3.8% 4.8% 1.9% 2.8% 5.0%
Auburn 1.5% 4.2% 4.5% 4.2% 1.8% 4.7%
Florida 1.8% 4.7% 6.1% 3.0% 5.4%
Georgia 1.1% 4.6% 5.6% 4.6% 1.4% 4.2%
Kentucky 1.9% 3.9% 4.6% 2.6% 5.5% 4.2%
LSU 1.6% 3.9% 7.0% 3.0% 3.7%
Missouri 0.8% 3.6% 5.9% 3.0% 3.6%
South Carolina 1.0% 4.5% 4.2% 1.6% 4.1%
Tennessee 1.5% 4.0% 4.6% 2.6% 3.8%
Texas A&M 1.3% 3.3% 4.3% 3.1% 1.7% 3.3%
TCU 2.3% 4.5% 4.3% 3.4% 3.5% 2.7%
Texas 1.6% 4.6% 6.1% 5.6% 1.8% 5.6%
West Virginia 2.8% 4.8% 5.7% 3.7% 3.2% 5.3%
Arizona 0.7% 5.1% 6.5% 5.7% 1.1% 6.6%
Arizona St 1.1% 3.9% 4.8% 3.6% 4.7%
California 1.5% 5.4% 6.1% 4.9% 2.0% 5.4%
USC 2.0% 3.4% 5.9% 5.2% 2.1% 4.5%
Stanford 2.1% 4.6% 5.2% 2.8% 3.7% 4.6%
Utah 0.5% 3.6% 3.7% 1.2% 3.9% 3.2%

*A few methodology notes. 1. This leaves out swimmers who don’t make their team’s conference roster because those swimmers are difficult to reliably identify. A swimmer’s last meet does not imply a taper. They could have been injured, suspended, or quit the team. 2. I completely ignored times at last chance meets. 3. Some swimmers compete in events they don’t care about at their conference meets to fill out their event line up and sandbag. This leads to swimmers adding 25% to their 50 free time. Drops outside 11% to -9% were eliminated as outliers.

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Coach
5 months ago

Nice info, interesting comapring college program to college program. This info is duplicated, middle of article: 2013-14 2014-15 2015-16 California 4.0% 4.8% 3.9% USC 1.7% 2.9% 2.6% Wisconsin 4.1% 3.4% 2.0% Comparing end of season times to in season times can give some insight into a team’s training cycle and style. D1 swimmers are the most broken down in October and January, and swim fast at meets in November and December. Here’s the average difference between D1 swimmers’ median time each month and their tapered times over the last 3 years: 2013-14 2014-15 2015-16 California 4.0% 4.8% 3.9% USC 1.7% 2.9% 2.6% Wisconsin 4.1% 3.4% 2.0% Comparing end of season times to in season times can give some insight into… Read more »

Smith-King-Dahlia-Manuel
5 months ago

Regan Smith does not need to taper for the NCAA’s.

sven
Reply to  Smith-King-Dahlia-Manuel
5 months ago

Sure, but is there any reason why she shouldn’t taper anyway?

COOL DOWN
5 months ago

Cool article, and really interesting to see the taper drops by event.