How Much Faster Do College Swimmers Get?

by Kevin Hallman 19

May 11th, 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.

Only one swimmer can win Olympic gold, but every swimmer has the opportunity to measure success or not against their own best times. As swimmers, we put hours of work into getting stronger, building more endurance, and becoming more efficient. Yet, for all of the choices people make about swimming in college—which team to swim for, what events to concentrate on, which division to compete in—most swimmers have little idea how much these things actually impact their ability to get faster. Using a couple of years of data on college swimmers, I hope to shed some light on these questions.

Measuring improvement is tricky. So much of a season’s performance depends upon on choosing which events and meets to peak at. These meets and events can vary year to year. To account for this, I chose to compare a swimmer’s top three events to their top three events the following year, using the measure of overall percentile rank in those events. I took any top times that were swum in events both years and compared these to the previous year, striving to only count tapered-swim to tapered-swim improvement. Unfortunately, I didn’t have reliable data for high school swimmers, so I could only look at how people improved from their freshman years onward: admittedly a large omission.

This chart should give an overall baseline for how swimmers improve over their college careers. Shown below is the average percentage improvement of all swimmers, broken down by division and gender.

Division Gender Avg. % Improvement
D1 Women 0.16
D2 Women 0.17
D3 Women 0.16
D1 Men 0.23
D2 Men 0.32
D3 Men 0.30

The first striking feature is that, on average, swimmers don’t improve much during their collegiate careers. To put a 0.3% improvement in perspective, a 50.00 second 100 yard freestyler who improved 0.3% would have swum a 49.85 the next season. The second is that men tend to improve about twice as much per year as women.

The next graphic shows overall improvement data broken down by gender and year in school/year of eligibility.

Year Gender Avg. % Improvement
Sophomore Women 0.27
Junior Women 0.04
Senior Women 0.14
Sophomore Men 0.49
Junior Men 0.16
Senior Men 0.11

It is clear from this graphic swimmers tend to improve less as they age. Without high school times, I don’t have freshman year improvement data. I would be surprised if swimmers didn’t improve the most during their freshmen seasons.

Next, I dove into the data by breaking out improvement results by event. I’ll just show a couple of events here to illustrate trends. First, the data showed that breaststrokers tended to improve more across their college careers than swimmers who swam the other strokes.

Secondly, the data showed that distance swimmers improve less than sprinters. You can see hints of this trend in the 100 and 200 breaststroke plots, but it becomes much more clear when looking at the 100 and 1650 freestyle events.

Exactly why this is the case is unclear. As a distance swimmer myself I can acknowledge that part of the issue is distance events take longer to get in shape for and year-round commitments to swimming became more difficult the older I got as the rest of life got in the way. Another explanation might be that sprinting is more technical than distance swimming, which makes it possible to improve even if your strength and endurance do not. This might explain why breaststrokers tend to improve more than swimmers in the other strokes, since breaststroke is usually thought of as the most technically complex stroke.

Another trend, though small, emerges across the board: fast swimmers tend to improve less than slower ones, even when looking at improvement as a percentage. The data here doesn’t explain why, but there are a couple different reasons for this that I could postulate: better swimmers are closer to their training peaks, regression to the mean, i.e. fast swims tend to be outliers, and the fact that drag forces increase proportionate to the square of velocity in water (approximately). But without more data, it is difficult to tell.

Another hypothesis I wanted to test was to see how improvement factored into building the top college teams. Since the best collegiate programs tend to attract the best coaches and the most dedicated swimmers, I would expect them to improve the most. Improving your swimmers is one of the keys to building a great program, in theory. Of course recruiting and retaining good swimmers probably has a stronger correlation ultimately, but recruits are supposed to make those decisions largely on how much they think they can improve in a given program.

Shown here are the average improvement percentages for the top 25 men’s and women’s programs at last year’s NCAA Championship meets plotted against a metric that shows their team strength on the national level in 2016.

These graphs show that team strength and improvement are probably correlated, but not in a way I would have expected. I’m not entirely sure if the fact that top men’s college teams improve their swimmers more than top women’s teams is really a trend or its just due to the small data set. I would tend to think the latter since I don’t really have a good explanation why it might be the case.

Getting faster in college is difficult; even the fastest swimmers at the top programs won’t improve much. So if you’re a college swimmer at least take solace in the fact that averages aren’t everything and getting better than your competition may not be quite as challenging as it used to be.

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8 months ago

Wonder what this looks like for NAIA?

Paul Windrath
8 months ago

One factor not mentioned is physical maturation. By college age, women are much, much closer to physical (height and strength) maturity that men. In fact, the majority of women may be past their strength-weight ratio. The second factor may be training time. You don’t mention who is included in the data set, but my experience suggests that the training volume and, more importantly, training intensity declines during the “off season” for the majority of college swimmers. This is due to classes, work schedules, no parental eyes watching over them, etc.. All the more reason why finding ways to reduce drag/resistance should continue to be a very high priority as swimmers age and mature – finding ways to get more bang… Read more »

Reply to  Paul Windrath
8 months ago

I think that the relative late maturity of males when compared to females is important. My son, who was quite tall and thin in HS dropped 3.5% in the 2 free and 4.9% in the 1 free during his college career, and he wasn’t slow in HS. The pictures of him his senior college year look nothing like he did in HS.

Reply to  Paul Windrath
8 months ago

Off season intensity decreases because athletes go from 20 hours of training in season to 8 per NCAA rules. Hard to get results at 40% training capacity.

Anonymous Llama
Reply to  Swimmmer
8 months ago

If this is the “Paul Windrath” of Hartwick legend, much of his experience came from working with D3 swimmers where most athletes went from 20 hours/week in season, to 0 hours/week out of season (as they are not allowed any directed practice time out of season). You can see a very stark difference in improvement curves between D3 athletes that train themselves in the off-season and thoes that dont. The ones that dont improve very little if at all and find it very difficult to even maintain old previous best times.

Reply to  Swimmmer
8 months ago

No top 25 NCAA team is only doing 8 hours in the offseason. Most of not all will continue with a normal schedule. Any time past 8 hours is “optional”.

Managing Speed
Reply to  Acc85
8 months ago

you can’t put enough sarcastic quotes around Optional here – pretty sure that word was never used regarding our off season training – the 20 hours is a joke as well, that was purely our in the water time, didn’t include any “optional” dry land training

8 months ago

Each year of training and competition also increases odds of acquiring/accumulating injuries that affect one’s ability to keep dropping time…