Finding your peak performance
The concept of tapering seems simple: Work hard all year, and then rest up as you approach your target competition. The extra rest allows your muscles to recover so you’ll produce peak power when you race. But how much rest do you need, and what does that rest look like?
If you swam on a college or competitive club team, your coach was probably 98% responsible for designing your taper.
But Masters swimmers are a motley bunch—they come in a wide range of ages and unique personal factors. Jobs, families, injuries, motivations, and different target meets all influence their ability to train, making their attendance at Masters practices more sporadic than on youth teams. Therefore, it’s nearly impossible for the coach to design one program that works for everyone.
This means that although your coach can help by providing great workout design and timely advice, the responsibility for a successful taper strategy may fall squarely upon your broad shoulders.
When I was a kid, the season consisted of three phases: drill days, hammer-time, and chilling out. We’d start the season with philosophy, stroke work, and dryland training. Then we’d cram in as many yards as possible through the bulk of the season. Finally, our taper consisted of short sprints, rest, and huge bowls of spaghetti.
We now know that peak performance requires constant focus on technique, nutrition, and recovery, as well as frequent speed work throughout the year. As training evolved in sophistication, tapering became a far more nuanced process.
Because you consistently work on technique, the only technique taper adjustment is to make your visualization specifically address your target competition. Study the pool, the starting blocks, the walls, and even the locker rooms. As the meet date approaches, spend more of your workout imagining yourself happily experiencing the target environment, including the sounds, water temperature, spectators, etc.
The more you compete, the more you can make adjustments and corrections to ensure that your entire race will go according to plan. Don’t wait until the night before your race to try something new.
Don’t wait until the night before your race to try something new. (Yes, I know I just said that, but it’s worth repeating.) Not only is it a mistake to modify your strokes, wear a new suit or goggles for the first time, try a massage, or attempt a dive you’ve never practiced, it’s also a bad idea to radically alter your fueling. Maintain a healthy diet throughout the year and only adjust your food and drink intake as required to match changes in your training.
Racing fast requires training fast. Incorporate speed work throughout the year, and celebrate the fact that training hard makes you tired. That post-workout fatigue is your body growing stronger in response to the challenges you’ve placed upon it—IF you allow your muscles the chance to recover. Constantly working out without ever resting leads to a condition known as overtraining, where muscles degenerate rather than adapt. Therefore, training should be a cyclic progressive activity; work hard, recover, repeat. As you adapt and get stronger, you increase the workload to encourage new adaptation.
When you taper, you decrease the workload and add extra rest to allow the muscles to fully recover. To accomplish this:
- Decrease the total yardage of each workout by shortening practice or taking more rest between repeats
- Do fewer workouts
- Cut back on dryland workouts
- Avoid exhausting extracurricular activities such as shoveling snow, moving furniture, or country line dancing
- Decrease the intensity of some workout sets
This doesn’t mean that you stop working and begin loafing every set. In fact, it’s critical to maintain high effort on certain swims to stay tuned up and ready to compete. As your taper kicks in, it becomes easier to swim at race pace. Those efforts help you understand how to allocate energy during the actual competition. Just don’t work so hard that you get sore or wear yourself out.
When should your taper begin? You want to give your body a chance to fully recover and grow as strong as possible without resting so much that you lose your fitness.
There’s no single answer. Generally, a good taper consists of a gradual cutback over two or three weeks, with minimal work during the last five days. But you are unique, and your taper’s effectiveness depends on factors that apply to only you. These include:
- The number of months you’ve been training
- The frequency/intensity of your workouts (including dryland, cross-training, etc.)
- Your age, general health, and physical tendencies.
If you haven’t worked out hard enough to become fatigued, resting up won’t help much. If you’ve been torturing yourself with mega-yardage for an eternity, you might need a month or more to fully recover. Older folks generally take longer to recover, but they also tend to not experience the overall workload of their younger counterparts. Distance swimmers tend to lose their focus if they back off too much, while sprinters tend to thrive with a taper that consists of short but intense bursts of effort. The only way to know for sure how you respond to a taper period is for you and your coach to take your best guess and see how it goes. Document what you did and how well it worked, and then adjust the next time you taper. Try a mid-season taper to gather data if it makes sense for your situation.
Regardless of your pre-taper training, the key is getting adequate rest while holding onto your mental focus and technique in the water. Make sure you sleep well during your entire taper period, including the night before the meet. With good training, a good attitude, and good rest, you’ll be in a great position to perform at your very best.
- Technique and Training