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Mike's Mailbag: Taper Checklist

2/19/2014

By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent

Every week I answer questions from swimmers around the country. If you have a question, comment, or story idea, please send them to me at swimmingstories@gmail.com.

Dear Mike,

The end of the season is coming soon and to many swimmers in the tight swimming community, this is the most stressful time of the season yet. Your last couple articles addressed the importance of being in a Zen state of mind pre-race and letting go of fear. I am wondering if you could write something about how to tackle these last few weeks of the season from taper to the minute before the race. As a swimmer who has been swimming for ten years, I always find this time of the season to be the most stressful. Doubts about your training, your coach, and yourself kick in unexpectedly. Yet this is the time that everything you have done in the season will be evaluated by your performance. Whether you will meet the goals you have set from the beginning of the season will be determined in just a couple quick races. Do you have any words of wisdom, sort of like a checklist, to tackle the end of the season?

Thank you,
Excited But Anxious Swimmer

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Hello EBAS,

Every championship season is like traveling to a new place. There are the literal travel arrangements – hotel booking, car renting, new pool acclimating. When traveling, you also have a packing list: goggles, check; suit, check; razor, check; towel, check. However, just as important as those swim bag items are those things you can’t see, the things you can’t literally stuff into a bag and haul with you to your championship meet:

Your self-confidence.

Your fearless attitude.

Like you requested, here is a taper checklist that covers the end of the season:

1. Are you sleeping?

Sleep is the best way to recover. Don’t think you’ll drop time if you’re going to sleep at 1am or 2am. I’ve heard your body rests best between 10pm-2am. Aim to sleep earlier. Sleeping earlier will ensure you’re adequately resting. If you’re prone to pre-race nerves, even if you stay up tossing and turning, if you’ve gotten sleep the two weeks before the meet, you’ll be fine.

2. Don’t drastically change nutrition.

Obviously, always try to eat healthy. But don’t suddenly change everything. Your body is adjusting to lower intensity training; it shouldn’t have to adjust to a drastically different diet. If you’ve been drinking coffee the entire season, don’t cut out coffee now. Cut out obvious things, like soda and pizza, but don’t make huge, sweeping changes. Monitor how much you eat (because you aren’t training as much) and don’t spin your diet 180 degrees. A healthy diet makes the most impact throughout the entire season, not the week before a meet.

3. Compliment yourself.

Self-talk. Taper is all about self-talk. Michael Jordan used this trick playing basketball. Compliment yourself. Tell yourself you’re on-track. Don’t say, “I hate swimming” or “I can’t wait until the season is over.” To put it bluntly: when you talk crappy, you’ll swim crappy. If you want swimming to be over so quickly, why swim? It’s corny and weird to walk around pool decks with a self-congratulatory and self-complimenting persona, but if you don’t praise and lift yourself, who will? Swimming fast is not only about yards and times. It is about confidence, standing tall, and walking proudly. Be proud of your journey and confident in your training, then tell yourself as such.

4. Stay off your legs.

“Sorry, I can’t [fill in activity here]. I’m on taper.” This excuse for virtually all extraneous outside-the-pool activity has gotten me out of snow shoveling, taking out trash, walking up stairs when elevators are present, etc.. But seriously. Stay off your legs. During your championship meet, you’ll be standing upwards of 8 hours a day cheering, walking to the bathroom, the warm-up pool, to and from the hotel… Your legs get drained. Save them now.

5. Limit watching screens.

Phones, TV, computer. I’ve heard that 90% of fatigue when resting enters in through the eyes. I’ve always felt drained after watching hours of TV or Netflix. Take your eyes away from a screen. Write. Read. Or just rest. Don’t spend your taper staring at your phone. Give your mind a rest from constant stimulation and distraction.

That said…

6. Put down your cell phone at swim meets!

Wow, this drives me crazy. There’s that once-in-a-lifetime swim meet happening, and 80% of your teammates are staring at their cell phones. Put down your cell phone. Nothing interesting is happening on your cell phone. Stand up. Walk around. Cheer. Breathe. Take it in. Be in the present. Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t put down your cell phone once in a while, you could miss it.

7. Stay in the moment.

For me, the more I envisioned greatness, the more nervous I got. Winning, podiums, trophies… the more I thought about these things, the slower I swam. Think about your race. Think about your technique and training. Don’t think about the kid next to you, or the glory of breaking records, or dropping 15 seconds off your best time. Think about the things you need to do, stroke by stroke, to get there. This starts in practice. Don’t think about your end time. Think about where you’re placing your hand, the angles of your fingertips, your extension. Then, after the first stroke, think about the next, then the next. Soon you’ll be entirely in the moment, your mind blank, and your body just going with the flow. This is what you want. Effortless effort.

8. Swim with your race suit before the meet.

Don’t wait until championship meet warm-ups to swim with your racing suit. Try it on at least a day before the big meet. Make sure it fits. Make sure it is comfortable. Your body swims and moves differently when you have a race suit on. Practice a few times with last year’s old racing suit, just so you remember how it feels to swim with a racing suit on. It’s different than a practice suit. Get comfortable with it before the meet starts so you can be confident there will be no surprises on race day.

9. Don’t stay up late shaving the night before the big meet.

This one drives me nuts. So many times I’ve seen swimmers spend hours – hours! – stooped and bent over their legs and arms, in the bathtub, dehydrated, shaving down until their backs hurt and it’s midnight. Seriously. The day before shouldn’t be spent sitting half-naked, cold, shivering or dehydrating, shaving your body. It should be spent relaxing and getting prepared. If you have to shave in spurts, shave in spurts. Clip two days before if you have to. Maybe I’m in the minority, but I think shaving, while mentally great, can also be physically taxing. Try to limit shave time and maximize pre-race rest time.

10. Trust your training.

Look: Swimmers train as hard or harder than any other athlete in the world. Unless you’ve skipped 80% of practices, you’ve trained hard, too. Trust that training. Trust that process. Don’t agonize over that week you got sick or those four days you sat out because your shoulder hurt. All you need to do is swim 100 yards. Or 200 yards. Or one 500. That’s it. Have the confidence in your body that you can, to the best of your ability, swim with power, speed, and technique. You’ve made it this far.

11. Breathe.

Finally, Excited/Anxious swimmer: breathe. Remember to breathe. I know it’s hard because swimmers aren’t used to an abundance of oxygen, but take a few moments to just breathe. Trust your body. Think about your breathing. If you get too nervous to compete, imagine that this race, this sport, this “swimming thing” is just traveling between two walls. Just like a scooter race. You wouldn’t get nervous about a scooter race. Be excited. Breathe. And have fun.

There are many more taper musts and dos, but these are things that have helped me the most.

Hope this helps.