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by Carolyn Boak

June 23, 2017

Tapering your swimmers can be difficult, but here’s a guideline

Ask half a dozen Masters coaches how to taper for a big competition, and you’ll get half a dozen answers. There doesn’t seem to be a consensus.

There are, however, several commonalities regarding a quality taper. Masters coaches can weave these together for an effective game plan, whether doing so for a sprinter or a distance swimmer, while making sure their fitness swimmers don’t feel left out.

In general terms, tapers should focus on fine-tuning speed and race technique while not doing anything overly fatiguing. This isn’t the time to build a conditioning base.

So how do we hone our swimmers’ race speed and stay in shape while keeping them from fatiguing right out of the race and not annoy our fitness swimmers?

With the 2017 U.S. Masters Swimming Summer National Championship starting Aug. 2, here’s the six-week taper plan for Masters swimmers who swim about 3000 meters a day four times a week. Adjust as necessary depending on how much and how often your swimmers train.

The Outline

Swimmers who are tapering should do more quality meters leading up to their meet but should only do these types of workouts two or three times a week and not on back-to-back days. They can swim the regular team workout on the other days.

Six Weeks Out: 2400-2800 meters per workout, 600-800 quality meters

Five Weeks Out: 2400-2800 meters per workout, 500-600 quality meters

Four Weeks Out: 2200-2400 meters per workout, 400-500 quality meters

Three Weeks Out: 2200 meters per workout, 300-400 quality meters

Two Weeks Out: 2000 meters per workout, 300 quality meters

Week of Taper Meet: 1800-2000 meters per workout, no quality meters (but still do lower-intensity hypoxic work, streamlines, wall approaches/finishes, starts, turns, and relay exchanges to fine-tune your technique)

Sprinting is tougher on the body in terms of muscular wear and tear and takes longer to recover from when compared to distance swimming. One hundred percent of sprint sets should count as quality meters, so if your swimmer does 3 x 100s broken and 6 x 50s fast, it totals 600 quality meters.

Middle- and long-distance swimmers face a lower level of intensity during their swims because tissue doesn’t break down and glycogen isn’t depleted in the bloodstream as rapidly in races stretching from the 200s to the 1500. We’ll weight middle- and long-distance quality yardage at 66 percent. If your middle or distance swimmer did 10 x 50s at 1500 pace, it would only be around 330 quality meters.

Doing quality meters requires more rest, and the deeper into taper your swimmers go, the more rest they should take. Within taper workouts, coaches should encourage lots of active recovery and stretching between sets. This is especially true for sprinters.

Coaches need to keep an eye on their swimmers’ fatigue levels. Whether doing a quality taper workout or a regular workout with lower intensity but tighter intervals during taper, if swimmers begin to show more signs of fatigue than normal, or their quality swims begin slowing down, more rest is needed, perhaps even a day off.

If we are going to err in our approach, it is better to err on the side of more rest rather than more intensity. Think of it this way: Have you ever met a Masters swimmer who wasn’t tired? We don’t want to be tired at the end of taper.

Here’s how to tailor a taper to each type of swimmer.


From the 30,000-foot perspective, sprinters should focus on swimming broken 100s, 50s, and 25s at race pace with lots of rest. As we get deeper into taper, the distances decrease and the intervals increase. The rest interval should be two to four times the length of the swim. For example, 50s with a target pace of 30 seconds should be on an interval that allows for 1 to 2 minutes of rest after each swim. This rest may be active.

As we get closer to our meet, the rest interval will increase significantly, and the focus of the sets should shift from all-out effort to descending or building up swims. Maximum effort should show up on the last swim of such sets with prior swims focusing more on building up to the pace.

However, it is key for sprinters that all-out sprints stop five to seven days before the big meet. This is because muscle recovery from high intensity sprinting is much harder and takes much longer. We don’t want to show up on race day even slightly broken down. We want to be fresh. Our focus during the last week of taper is on accumulating rest and energy, not burning it.

Some examples of quality sets for sprinters include the following:

  • 3 x 100s at race pace, broken, on 4:00 to 5:00 (#1 50—rest 10 sec—50, #2 50—rest 10 sec—25—rest 10 sec—25, #3 25—rest 10 sec—25—rest 10 sec—25—rest 10 sec—25)
  • 4 x 100s all out on 5:00
  • 4 x 50s with 2:00 rest (odds 25 fast/25 easy, evens: 25 easy/25 fast)
  • 6 x 50s all out on 3:00 to 4:00, with an easy 50 between each one.

Pick and choose sets of this nature to total up to your quality meterage target for each day. Additionally, intervals can be adjusted for stroke work if more rest is required.

Keep in mind that as we get closer to the meet, the set emphasis should change from pure power and speed work to build-ups, descending sets, and a more technical focus. Remember, there is no more all-out sprinting during the last week of the taper.

Middle-Distance Swimmers

Swimmers who specialize in the 200 are often the most difficult to taper because there are aspects of both sprinting and distance swimming to their races. They need to do both shorter interval pace sets and high-quality sprint sets.

One way of accommodating this training dichotomy is to focus on sprints one day and distance pace work on another. Or we can mix the two following our formula described above. For example, on a day with 600 quality meters, your 200 swimmers may do 8 x 50s pace work on a fairly tight interval, but that will only count as 200 or 300 meters of their 600. To get the remainder of their 600, they may do a broken 200, a broken 100, and 4 x 25s.

For pace sets, a good example is 8 x 50s on an interval that gives 5-10 seconds rest, targeting a 500 free or a 400 IM pace. As we get deeper into the taper, the interval increases, providing more rest, so the pace becomes more easily achievable and the muscles become more easily acclimated to that level of effort.

For quality sets, broken 200s, sometimes called race simulators, are appropriate. Breaks in the swims can be moved about as necessary, depending on the focus of the swim and the fatigue level of the swimmer.

In addition, some pure speed work, such as 25s or even 100s on long interval, is also important. Keep in mind that quality meterage counts as 100 percent when tallying our total quality distance for the day.

As we get closer to the meet and we’re down to about 200 meters of quality in our sets, swimmers specializing in the 200 might do 9 x 50s on a 15- to 20-second rest interval, descending 1-3, 4-6, and 7-9, where 3, 6, and 9 are at 200 race pace. This would account for 150 meters of quality. They can finish with a couple of sprints.

There is an additional caveat for those swimmers who are targeting 200s of stroke or the 400 IM. We never want to overload them to the point of stroke breakdown. This is especially true for those doing butterfly races of 100 or more. Do shorter swims with enough rest to maintain proper stroke mechanics.

Swimmers doing the 200 butterfly may be better served with more emphasis on sustaining pace work and a little less pure sprint work. This is different than if they were focusing on the 50 or even the 100 fly, where the need for speed becomes more prominent.

Long-Distance Swimmers

Distance swimmers should concentrate more on pace work during their taper with a little bit of sprinting. Because they do lower-intensity pace work, distance swimmers can do more distance, but getting rest is still the overarching goal of the taper.

Some example sets of distance work during taper include the following:

  • 10 x 100s on the tightest interval where the 1500 target pace can be sustained. That would count for around 600 meters of quality.
  • 10 x 50s on a tight interval where the 400 target pace can be sustained. That will count as about 350 meters of quality. The quality total can be augmented with some broken 200s and a few sprints.
  • For 400 IMers, an early taper workout might be a 400 IM that alternates 50 kick/50 drill, followed by a 400 IM, broken for 10 seconds after each 100, where each 100 is a build to race pace. Then another broken 400 IM at target pace, where the breaks are more frequent.

As distance swimmers get closer to the meet, they can still do sets of 8 to16 x 50s at race pace, but the intervals need to grow progressively longer. The goal here is to train the muscles to exert and swim at their goal pace automatically.

Again, as we get to the last week of taper, the pure power sprint work is shelved in favor of more focused pace and technical work.

Mixing Competitive and Fitness Swimmers

Now that we know how to taper our competitive swimmers, the question becomes how do we work taper workouts into the context of the larger team workout. Only a small percentage of a team’s membership is likely to travel to a big meet, and those who aren’t shouldn’t set aside their workouts to accommodate their teammates.

And what if some team members are focused on a different competition schedule? Someone training for an Iron Man in September is not well served by tapering for a Nationals meet in August. How do we make these parts fit together?

Fortunately, fast swim training benefits everyone. It trains the speed work for the competitive swimmer, it works different cardio zones for fitness swimmers, and it provides valuable training variety for the triathletes. Some may enjoy these workouts, but they may not want to do this as often or for an entire workout.

As a possible accommodation, the nontaper swimmers can do longer swims on the longer intervals that characterize taper workouts. For instance, if taper swimmers are doing 50s on the 2:30 with active recovery, the non-taper swimmers can do 100s or 150s. It’s just a matter of getting the lane order right. Distances can be adjusted within the lane for the taper and nontaper swimmer. This is helpful because it’s often beneficial to have taper swimmers doing their quality sets head to head. However, that may entail some significant traffic control by the coaches. Much will depend on how many swimmers are tapering and who is targeting what sort of race.

There are several challenges that present themselves, some obvious, some subtle.

Diligence in the swimmers’ attention to detail and level of effort is required, as well as an acknowledgment of the importance of these things in early- and mid-season training. If the swimmers have been working out consistently and with focus during the season prior to taper, no one will lose any amount of physical conditioning during these final six weeks. This is especially true during that last week of taper, when the high-intensity work has been phased out in favor of sharpening technique and accumulating rest and energy. A well-conditioned athlete will not get out of shape in one week.

A taper is a great test of the integrative, motivational, and technical skills of the coach because so much is dependent on the swimmers involved. A positive mental attitude amplifies the physical benefits of a taper dramatically. The trust relationship between swimmer and coach becomes vitally important. The situation is complicated by the wide variety of focuses, goals, and personalities of all the swimmers in the pool, whether they are tapering or not. While it is possible to have good tapers on individual bases, a good team taper is the hallmark of great coaching.

Mountain View Masters coach Chris Campbell contributed to this story.


  • Technique and Training
  • Coaches Only


  • Distance
  • Fitness
  • Taper