IT’S TAPER TIME 21 days until USA Olympic Trials

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“It’s taper time.” Boy, does that sentence bring out miles of smiles?

The mere anticipation of it gets swimmers through the dark, dank, damp, dreary, dismal winter mornings, across the cold gap between door and car, and across the still cold gap between car and pool.

The three words have magical qualities: real magic; not the illusory sleight of hand kind performed by stage ‘magicians’. It means to bring about physical change through pure force of will and that is exactly what the sentence does.

It brings relief to swimmers, a feeling of lightness of head and fleetness of foot; speed greater than a speeding bullet, more power than a locomotive; it introduces a spring in the step, a willingness to boldly go, to leap tall buildings in a single bound. And sometimes total confusion, self-doubt and fear, even dread.

It brings grey hair or no hair to coaches. Worry, concern, and anxiety are the lesser manifestations coaches have to deal with during taper time. Fear and panic sometimes raise their ugly little heads. But it needn’t be so. All can be sweetness and light. Calm before the storm of a perfect race.

The 3 levers of recovery

Some years ago, exactly twenty-one days before the Olympic Games, the favorite for one of the sprint events slowly walked into the changing rooms, sat on a bench, sighed and decisively said to me, to himself, and to anyone else who was listening, “It’s about that time.”

And about that time it was. Everything that could be done had been done. Ten and more years of hurt, pain and agony, blended with misery, distress and anguish, yet spiced with elation, pleasure and joy had come down to this final twenty-one days. Twenty-one days where calm, control, rest and focus would take precedence over effort and the blood, sweat and tears of purposeful preparation.

The principles of training – specificity, overload, adaptation, and progression must be judiciously manipulated using three dimensions of operation – intensity, frequency and volume. Balanced properly these three allow recovery to work its own particular magic and produce the super-compensated reward of higher performance capability and hold at arms’ length the dreaded effects of the principle of reversibility.

The balance: the proportional distribution of the expended energy compared with the subsequent reward, is the delicate brushwork overlaid on the scientific canvas which is coaching. Cause and effect are directly linked but the Trinity of cause, effect and their connective process cannot be teased apart, cannot be separated. They must be treated as a coherent entity, a complete and unbroken unit.

  • VOLUME: the easiest of the three to measure. It brings with it assigned bragging rights: “We do a gazillion squillion meters every week.” “We are the toughest program in the area.” “We beat the $#!& out of them last week.” But it is the least important of the three.
  • INTENSITY: the most important factor. Intensity – the speed at which training is performed – causes specific changes in the muscles and change is what training is about. Change the speed and you change the change.
  • FREQUENCY: the number of times each week that particular training types are performed determines the degree of change. Nine one-hour practices each week are more productive than one nine-hour practice. More productive than three three-hour practices.  Frequency of input determines how deeply the claws of change sink into the flesh of the organism.

Let’s try to explain this with an analogy…

Imagine cooking an omelette. The eggs, mushrooms, and cheese are the ingredients. These are the materials which give the food nutritional value. The ingredients give the food intensity. Better choices produce better meals.

The preparation – whisking, chopping, grating, the choice and amounts of seasoning – equate to the frequency. Well prepared foods mix well, combining the flavors into lip-smacking delight.

The cooking time is the volume. Too little and the omelette is soggy and runny, too much and it is hard, dry and crispy, maybe burned.

Bad choices or bad application of any one of the three can lead to disaster. Deliberately planned change is good but the unplanned changes brought about by mistakes in intensity, frequency or volume can deep-six a whole season. Too fast or too slow will produce different muscle structure or functional change than those brought about by ‘correct’ speed. Too often or not often enough and the change won’t be consolidated or the body won’t cope with the imposed stress. Too short and the change will not be embedded, too long and the muscles will become catabolic; energy substrates will be unavailable and the only nourishment available will stem from cannibalism.

Swimmers, however, are not omelettes. They are meat.

Meat needs to rest after it is cooked. Swimmers need to rest after they are cooked. Meat is laid aside, lovingly cosseted in warmth-retaining foil and allowed to relax; after the pooling caused by the intensive assault of fire its juices encouraged to disperse throughout. After the resting the taste is enhanced, the texture tenderizes, the flavors assault the taste-buds; they lurk, loiter and linger long after the meat has been swallowed and delivered to the digestive juices.

Likewise swimmers. Rest them and their performance is enhanced. The quality of their movements and rhythm takes on a more fluid, more elegant and more flowing delivery. The vision of the performance assaults the senses and lurks, loiters and lingers in the memory long after the scoreboard has delivered its good news.

Resting and its potential effects

Resting disturbs coaches. Resting delights swimmers. The ethic of work-work-work which has been hammered into the swimmers all season is suddenly reversed and the swimmers’ bodies react with metabolic and emotional confusion. In-training performances go haywire. Sometimes incredible speed effortlessly appears; available energy levels spike and it is easy to go mental. That temptation must be controlled. Keep calm and focus is a great reminder.

At other times lethargy and sluggishness inexplicably appear. The simple solution is to keep working but it is a wrong solution. The answer is to be patient, knowing that the cooking has done its job. The juices of excellence will disperse throughout and the eventual explosion of taste and texture will appear. Of course, the work-work-work has to precede this – it is a geometrical impossibility to taper from nothing. If in doubt I think a useful principle is “In season do more, in taper do less.” Better though to plan well and remove all doubt.

Putting it all together

The modes of intensity, frequency and volume should be reduced and removed in reverse order of importance.

First reduce the volume. Instead of covering 7km each practice reduce it to 6 then 5 then 4 … Reduce the so-called ‘main sets’ (every set is a main set!) from 3 km to 2.5 km, to 2.0 km …

Next reduce the frequency. Cut the nine or ten practices down to eight, then seven and so on.

Finally reduce the intensity. Go to the edges of the speed scale; lots of LSD and a handy helping of short, super-fast sprints. “Taper hard” is another good maxim when faced with the dilemma of managing tapers. They are a strange phenomena of nature. Each swimmer responds differently but the principles are universal.

It is tempting to throw chicken bones into a fire and try to interpret the smoke and resultant ashes. Resist the temptation. Plan the taper well. Apply the principles. Rest at every opportunity; conserve energy, both physically and most importantly conserve psychic energy – that is the key to releasing volitional energy on race day; mentally rehearse the race plans; know the detail of the procedures to be used for wake-up swims, for feeding and hydration, for travel to and from the pool, for warm-up, for waiting, for the ready room, for the march out.

The swimmer who announced “It’s about that time” knew himself. He had vast experience and ability. His taper worked. He won the gold medal. But it can be controlled and managed by swimmers and coaches with lesser experience if they approach the situation calmly and with clear purpose.

Another swimmer I know – and this is many years ago, long before the “about that time” time – hadn’t broken two minutes for a short course 200m freestyle as the Olympic year dawned. But he was assiduous in his approach, he was determined to improve and he had a very high goal. As January morphed into February, then into March his times steadily dropped. By Olympic Trials he was a strong contender for a 4 x 200 relay spot. His training diary recorded everything he did. He qualified for the relay and the combined performances indicated they could make the final, possibly even challenge for a medal but his was the vulnerable leg. The other three were vastly more experienced, each of them was a finalist contender in his own right.

On the day of the 4 x 200 heats his training diary recorded “Today, everything must be perfect.” And it was. The quartet easily qualified for the final and then produced a magnificent combination of swims to make the podium; from 2:00 plus in January to an Olympic medal in July. Today everything must be perfect. Tapers are about planning, decision and control.

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