Understanding the Science (and the Art) of the Taper (Coaches’ Corner July 18, 2019)

admin Coaches' Corner

By Coach Lauren, INT2.

Woohoo! It is the most wonderful time of the year! It is TAPER TIME – like Christmas in July! You have made it through almost three months of hard training in the pool. You have survived Challenge Week – the most demanding week of the year. Now, during your taper, your coach will finally take the foot off the gas and give you some time to build up your strength and stamina before the biggest meets of the year. However, this is not the time to slack off in practice and eat potato chips all day while bingeing on Netflix.  To  get the most out of your taper, you need to know the physiology behind the taper (the Science) and how to manage the mental and physical aspects (the Art) to make sure that you are at your peak performance when it matters most.

The Science of the Taper

First, what is a taper? Taper is the period of time leading up to a big competition when coaches diminish the volume and the intensity of training, increase rest and allow the bodies of their swimmers to transform the previous hard work into pure speed. The theory is your body, physiologically, is being stressed during the periods of heavy training in June and July.

Scientific studies have shown that a taper, when done properly, will allow your muscles to recover and regenerate and the neuromuscular system will become a fine-tuned machine. Unfortunately, scientific research has also shown a taper is not a “one size fits all”.

Obviously, a teenager in the SR group who swims intensely for 9 hours per week will taper differently that a 8-10 year-old MV swimmer who practices 5-6 hours per week. In fact, the research shows that the physiological benefit from a taper for pre-pubescent swimmers is extremely limited since they do not have the muscle mass or suffer from the lack of energy that their older teammates do. Even for older swimmers who benefit from a taper, each will react differently from the process.

For example, I am an “early responder”, meaning I always felt the benefits from the taper almost immediately. I would be swimming PBs’ on Day 2-3 of the taper and feared that the physiological benefits would run out by the big meet. On the other hand,  my teammates, like Kiersten and Mackenzie G, would not truly feel fast until Day 7-8 of the taper (“late responders”).  They feared that they would reach their peak performance AFTER the big meet.

The Art of the Taper

Unfortunately, science cannot predict how your body and mind will react to your taper. It is a very personal thing. In fact, as I noted above, this period can be quite emotionally challenging. Here’s where the artistic side of the taper comes in.  Follow the tips below and you can create  a winning taper no matter how your body reacts:

  1. Embrace the taper with positivity.

On Day 1, tell yourself that you will taper like a boss! If you are an “early responder”, like me, enjoy how great you feel in practice and believe your newfound speed will stay with you all the way to the final day of the big meet. If you are a “late responder”, tell yourself that your body is just quietly waiting for your big event before turning on the jets.

  1. “CHILLAX” and “Dummy-it-Down”

Put your brain on a taper too.  Don’t over-analyze how you “feel” in the water.  Some of you may feel achy and sluggish during this period. This is totally normal; it is just the way your unique body reacts to the early stages of the taper. Don’t worry about it. Avoid looking frequently at the BCSSA rankings and your competitors’ times, especially if it makes you anxious. Don’t overthink your big events. If you can’t turn it off, envision your perfect race in which you execute your race plan flawlessly (perfect turns, perfect streamlines,. . .). Visualization is a technique that many of the very successful Olympians use (Brent Hayden, Michael Phelps,  Ryan Lochte etc.).

  1. Sleep, sleep, and sleep and eat right.

People often complain of feeling tired during a taper. The best remedy for this is sleep – sleep helps your body (muscles and mind) recover from hard training. If you are one of those people that get a burst of energy and can’t sleep, read point #2 above and don’t worry about it!

During your taper, you may have to adjust your caloric intake because you are no longer burning it all off during hard practice. You can tolerate that half-litre of Hagen-Daäs during training, but during a taper it’s not the best idea.

Just remember that taper is your own personal journey. We are in the home-stretch – stay positive and trust the process.