How Much Faster Do Swimmers Get In College?

by SwimSwam Contributors 26

January 10th, 2017 College, Lifestyle

By Kevin Hallman

One of the most fundamental aspects of a swimmer’s season is improvement – only one swimmer can win Olympic gold in each event, 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 the choices people make about swimming in college, which team to swim for, what events to concentrate on, which division of swimming to compete in, most swimmers have very little idea how much or little these things actually have to do with their getting faster. Using a couple of years worth of data on college swimmers, I hope to shed some light on some of these questions.

Measuring improvement is tricky since 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 then took any top times that were swum in events that both years and compared these to the previous year, trying 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 do.

The next graphic shows overall improvement data broken down by gender and year in school (well 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 that swimmers tend to improve less as they age. Note that I don’t include freshman improvement. This is mostly because I don’t have access to high school times the same way as college, but also because the comparison would be difficult since high school swimmers tend to swim different events college swimmers do. I would be highly 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 a bit unclear to me. As a distance swimmer myself, I can acknowledge that part of the issue is that distance events take longer to get in shape for. 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. However, other endurance sports like running and cross country skiing see many athletes peak late in life, so this probably isn’t a complete explanation.

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 of the time. 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 some 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 might 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 that I would have expected. I’m not entirely sure if the fact that better men’s college teams improve their swimmers more while top women’s teams do not is really a trend or its just due to the smallish 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 that getting better than your competition may not be quite as challenging as it used to be.

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5 years ago

Any way these charts can be updated with the 2017 data?

David Marsh
5 years ago

Great data – would love to see this in a long course metric. thank you for taking time to examine. Looks like D2 is a place for some signifigant hope ?

Papi Mustache
5 years ago

A team that has a tremendous amount of success changing mid-level swimmers into high level competitors is UF. The Gators often take in a good amount of middle tier swimmers and turn them in SEC champions and NCAA point scorers, Expecially on the men’s side.

6 years ago

This is a great article and I thank you for it. As you stated, only one swimmer can win an event. And only one team wins a National Championship each year. But every team has the opportunity to design and run a program to help swimmers improve. It’s a competition any team can win. I remember telling the great Stanford coach Skip Kenny that we at Tropical Penguin were analyzing the percent improvement of college swimmers and wondered if he thought that was fair, since teams like Stanford’s recruit swimmers who might likely be fully advanced in stroke and fitness. He was enthusiastic. He was excited at the chance to compete to improve swimmers at a better rate than anyone… Read more »

Big Kahuna
6 years ago

I agree with your comments on distance swimmers. Year round commitment was something that was difficult especially when there was no end game except graduating.

Old Swimmer who has seen it all
6 years ago

Interesting data. I think that it conforms to what I have seen. As you and others note, that 1st year in college would tell a different story. What we have seen for males, is that they stagnate in college and then the elite ones that continue to swim after college start dropping again. I think that anyone that has gone through college swimming can attest, there are many other areas that pull at you beside swimming [academics, social, etc.]. For most getting on that college team is the pinnacle of their career. For much fewer numbers making NCAA cuts. Fewer numbers yet, scoring at NCAAs. For me, my sophomore year in college was the year I recognized my talent limit… Read more »

Brian Deiderick
6 years ago

One of the things that it does not account for is the intensity (or lack thereof) at the high school level. Swimmers coming from top high school/club programs, I do agree that the window of improvement are much smaller. However, take a swimmer who has kicked around in an average club program that has not been terribly serious but has been gifted with size, strength, feel, etc. – all those “natural talents” that you cannot coach. You can suddenly add intensity of workouts, addition of a weight/dryland program, etc. and you should be able to see a huge improvement.

What the data might imply is that the top programs tend to get talent that has mostly “maxed out” and has… Read more »

6 years ago

First of all, this is completely awesome. A few points: incremental improvement is meaningful when you’re already fast (going from 19.8 to 19.7 in the 50 is a lot more significant than going from 21.3 to 21.2, and I would guess that’s the case across all events, if not exactly by a percentage basis, in relation to the event … but going from 3:48 to 3:47 (or from 3:43.5 to 3:43.1) in the 400 IM is more meaningful and more difficult than going from 3:53 to 3:51).

Second: As you acknowledge, not having the data from high school is a big issue…lots of kids get better during their first year of college and full training, better coaching, and lifting.… Read more »