Hey Coach, Are We Tapering For Divisions?

Yes, I’ve heard that question a lot this last few weeks.  And it’s not that easy to answer. But first, let’s talk about what a competitive swim taper is, and why we do it.

My readers will know by now that I love to tell stories.  So let’s start off this blog with one.

The origins of tapering seem to be lost. As all sports have their own anecdotes, let’s go with my favourite swimming one.  According to this story from Dr. Greg Wells’ book Superbodies, in the 1960s a US university swim team lost the use of its pool one week before a big competition. To not swim for one week before a big competition was unheard of, but they had no choice.  The big surprise was that, according to the story, the whole team did personal best times once they got to the competition. That involuntary taper revolutionized training.

What is Tapering?

As you can guess from the story above, tapering is the process of reducing the training stress in the period prior to a big competition.

To understand tapering, you really have to understand training.  For virtually any sport, training generally consists of loading the body with significant amounts of training stress. Among other things, this involves systematically exercising different energy systems within the body, giving barely enough time for that system to recover before whacking it again.  In some cases this energy system recovery can take days. So in the meantime, the athlete can continue to work on technique, mental aspects, or other energy systems. This is hard work, and needs to be done on a constant basis during the training season. For example, our Seniors have 7 water training sessions and 3 dryland training sessions a week. That is a lot of training stress to put on a body.

This solid base of training allows the athletes to improve their conditioning, power, and speed.  In the early days of all sports, that routine of intense training would be continued right up to a day or so before a big competition, and only then would the athlete rest.

But once tapering was discovered, it fundamentally changed competition preparation. Science has been analyzing this phenomena ever since, and has found that it increases VO2 max (an indicator or aerobic conditioning), increases muscle glycogen, improves efficiency and makes the athlete feel GREAT! But only for a short window of time, with that window varying for each athlete.  Too much tapering and all indicators get worse. Too little and the effect is not achieved.  It is little more than a science-based art right now.

Who Should Taper?

As you can imagine, all swimmers want to taper.  But today’s science has shown us that there are at least two requirements for a taper to be effective.

1)  The swimmer must swim hard enough and long enough on an ongoing basis such that a reduction in training will significantly reduce training stress.  Realistically, this cuts out Novice and below from benefiting from a taper.

2)  The swimmer must be old enough that they are able to develop and train for strength and power (as opposed to learning how to harness existing power). At a bare minimum, this is 13 for girls and 14 for boys.  This cuts out our Junior group.

That just leaves our Seniors. But is it realistic to make my Juniors train really hard while a few lanes over the Seniors relax with a reduced work load? No. Not at all. While the Juniors won’t gain much from a taper, the good news is that they train hard enough then they won’t suffer from one either. They will be included if we taper.

But what about the Novice?  Should they be included in a ‘taper’ even though it won’t help?  Sorry, but with their reduced work load to begin with, the Novice don’t have a big enough training base for a taper. In fact, reducing their training base may very well have them swim slower. Instead, they should just swim easier for a few days before the meet.

The Big Question: Will We Taper For Divisions?

This is not a simple question.  Swimming Canada and the associated coaching association say that we should taper at most twice a year. And with their positioning of major meets (Provincials, Eastern / Western Cup, Nationals, etc.) all being in Feb/Mar and July, they are obviously promoting (i.e. mandating)  those two time frames as the tapering phases. I have a problem with that.

There are strong arguments for December as a natural time of the year to taper.  December is our fourth month of training, and marks a good time to test out the overall program and provide feedback for the remaining 6 months.  In addition, immediately following will be Christmas and a natural time to start a new training macrocycle. (We don’t do a rigorous Christmas training camp but many teams do.) In addition, many countries in the world hold short course national championships in December. It seems that Canada is in the minority in encouraging coaches to train through December as if it was any other month.

To emphasize this as a natural taper time, for most of our team Divisions is the big meet of the year. Sure, there are other meets later, but this is the year’s highlight. Why not taper for this one?  Even our top swimmers who will qualify for those major meets could do well by tapering for this one, and just resting a little for the big February meets. And then tapering for the second time for the big July meets.

So what’s the decision? Do we follow Swimming Canada’s encouragement to rest a few days for this meet and save the taper for February?  Or taper now and rest a few days for the February meets?


Now, go out there and rest!

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