Three General Principles on the Art of the Taper
By Tom Slear//Contributor
Perhaps nothing else in swimming befuddles coaches and swimmers as much as tapering.
“A moving landscape,” says Jonty Skinner, a former world record-holder in the 100-meter freestyle and the sprint coach at the University of Alabama. “There are a lot of things you have to take into account.”
To get a sense of just how much that landscape has shifted, there was a time when many coaches believed that the best way to prepare for a championship meet was to work harder, with one of the toughest practices of the season the day before the meet.
That notion evaporated when swimmers such as Chris von Saltza discovered the value of rest. She picked up a stomach bug shortly before the Olympic Trials in 1960 and spent over two days sleeping between bouts of gastric upheaval.
“It was scary,” she recalls. “I didn’t know what to expect.”
She won the 100-meter freestyle and set a world record in the 400-meter freestyle before going on to win three gold medals and a silver medal at the Olympics in Rome.
Word spread: Rest is good.
But how much and for how long? George Haines, von Saltza’s coach, whose Olympic success among his swimmers remains unmatched in competitive swimming, wasn’t sure what to make of this new concept. Swimming, after all, was about hard work. The idea of rest might catch on more than it should. As he once quipped: Some swimmers like to taper for a few days. Others like to taper for a few weeks. And a few like to taper for the entire season.
Over the last 50 years, coaches and swimmers have come to find out that Haines was more correct than he realized.
“Tapering is very individual,” says University of Florida and 2012 U.S. Olympic coach Gregg Troy. “It’s like a fingerprint. Different people adapt in different ways.”
Skinner has three training groups within his sprint group at Alabama. Each group—in fact each swimmer—undergoes a taper designed for his or her strength, body mass and aerobic capacity. Heart rates are checked constantly. Plans are changed daily according to how each swimmer is adjusting.
But as the techniques of tapering become more and more specific, coaches continue to abide by three long-standing, general principles:
Do the Work
“Great swimmers can fake it, no doubt about that,” says Tom Jager, the women’s coach at Washington State University and an Olympic medalist and former world record holder. “But the main point about tapering for most swimmers is doing the work. I always felt that if I had done the training, I didn’t need to worry about my taper. You just go fast.”
“The bottom line,” says Bill Rose, a 2008 U.S. Olympic coach and the head coach of the Mission Viejo (Calif.) Nadadores, “is that your chances of hitting your taper are multiplied by the amount of work you have put in. I have a very simple formula: You put in the work and the taper will work.”
“The biggest mistake swimmers make,” Troy says, “is that they don’t do the work before the rest. Then they rest more than they need to for the work that they have done.”
Arguably the most important ingredient of a taper is rest.
“When in doubt, rest,” says Skinner, “especially in those last seven days.” This assumes, he adds, that the swimmers have done the work beforehand.
But rest encompasses more than low-intensity workouts.
“What you do away from the pool in the areas of sleep and nutrition is just as important as what you do in the facility,” says Troy.
A few years back, one of Rose’s male swimmers did a 4:14 in the 400-yard IM at a meet a few days into the taper. That was 14 seconds off his best time with just two weeks until the winter nationals. The swimmer was distraught, as was Rose, but experience taught the long-time coach that tapering was all about staying positive.
“It was a horrible swim, and he was thinking, ‘Oh my God!’” Rose says. “I told him that things happen during a taper, good and bad. You can’t even imagine. Ten days later he did a 3:45. I can’t explain that other than it’s all about where your mind is. Tapering is scary when your mind isn’t right.”
“During taper, swimmers tend to pick up baggage, like worrying about their stroke,” says Jager. “That tells me they are scared. It’s the same stroke they had yesterday. Athletes have a tendency to shy away from success and get in the mode of, ‘I hope I can make it.’ You can’t think like that during a taper. You have to stop worrying and just go for it.”