In no sport does the taper carry the same mythical quality as in swimming. In reality, the taper is nothing more than a phase in training shown by years of evidence to have improved the performance of athletes at season’s end. Over time, the taper has become a longstanding tradition complete with all the touches of cultural rites…you begin an arduous crucible to forge one’s mettle followed a celebration with feasts (carbo load), alterations to the human body (shave down), special attire (racing suits), and perhaps a journey to battle with rival tribes (conference, nationals, worlds, Olympics).
Tapers are as much art as science, but it helps to know what science tells us, in part to explain why some tapers worked and why some didn’t. Coaches often think “their” taper is the best (just like “their” dryland program is the best), but maximal performance depends on optimizing the taper to the individual athlete’s needs. This task is easier said than done in a team setting, but we should at least recognize the different variables.
Some differences are intrinsic to the athlete while others are extrinsic. Every athlete changes from one year to the next. We’re all one year older and have more lifetime yardage in our bodies. Youth and adolescents may go through several years of biological development in one calendar year! That doesn’t mean the taper needs to change every year, since the routine of a standard taper is often mentally comforting, but knowing that change is inevitable is one reason to reevaluate our programs each year.
Another intrinsic factor is injury or illness. A swimmer who misses a chunk of a season with injury or gets knocked out with the flu might not have much training to taper from. Likewise, a swimmer overtrained may perform better with an extreme taper as compared to an optimally trained swimmer. Sometimes the taper rescues the swimmer from the training, perhaps leading to a false positive in favor of the extreme taper. Let’s avoid that!
One frequently overlooked extrinsic consideration is meet length. It’s one thing to peak for a single sprint event on the first day of a two day meet. It’s quite another to complete multiple races over several days. Those familiar with track and field may know the story of Peter Snell, gold medalist in the 1960 Olympics in the 800m. Snell had a modest personal record (PR) compared to the rest of the field, but snagged the gold in part because his training addressed the demands of racing multiple rounds, not just one 800m final. Guided by the legendary Arthur Lydiard, Snell frequently trained with 5k-10k specialists and marathoners, which was unheard of back then. I know this isn’t a swimming example, but Snell’s gold was a turning point for training in the second half of the twentieth century as it exposed Lydiard’s concepts of base training to other sports beyond the track.
Seasonal goals matter too, if the swimmer has multiple championships to race throughout the year. We can’t do a three week taper for every single “championship” meet if there are several on the schedule, so it is critical to understand how a taper evolves. The literature (Mejika, 1998) and anecdotal observation both support a gradual, rather than abrupt taper. It’s unclear the exact mechanism that makes an abrupt taper less effective. Impaired neural awareness or imbalance of stress hormones are two possibilities. Any change to this homeostasis, even by reducing the training stress, can alter the system. I don’t think formal research has gotten quite this far to explain the neural and hormonal effects of tapering, but common sense and observation indicate an abrupt change from an effective training routine can be unpredictable.
The two primary variables in tapering are duration and intensity. In general, tapers involve an increase in intensity and reduction in volume, but not always. Trinity (2008) studied a group of female college swimmers using a high intensity taper by reducing volume but increasing intensity by 50-60%. Subjects improved the length of time they could maintain maximum values in power output, velocity, and torque. The second half of the sample used a low intensity taper and performed worse at the national championship. A low intensity taper may result in detraining.
These findings raise the question of optimizing taper to event distance. Time at max power output is a desired outcome for 50s and 100s, but time spent at event specific submaximal outputs is more predictive of longer distance performance. If time at power output was the best predictor of longer distance performance, then the best 50m swimmers would dominate the middle distance and distance events, which is not the case.
Clearly intensity must remain, but the extent to which it may increase will vary by circumstance. Trappe (2001) studied a three week taper in highly trained swimmers and examined changes to muscle fibers during the taper period.Type IIa fibers (a type of fast twitch fiber) showed an increase in size, but there was no change in Type I (slow twitch fiber). Although a change in the volume vs. intensity balance is important for taper execution, middle distance and distance swimmers might not require the same intensity increase as sprinters. Papoti (2007) conducted a volume-only taper consisting of a 48% reduction in volume over an 11 day period with no change in intensity. For the 200m freestyle, subjects improved race times by 1.6% and force output by 3.6%.
How much improvement is possible from a taper? Tapers may vary widely in execution, but Kukubeli (2002) surveyed tapers and found an average of 3-4% improvement in performance is possible with tapers ranging from 2-4 weeks and volume reductions of 35-70%. However, this study recognized the importance of considering previous training to view a taper in context. Trappe (2001) found a 4% performance increase after a three week taper in highly trained swimmers. A study of swimmers at the 2000 Olympics found an average improvement of 2.57% for males and 1.78% for females in comparing Olympic performance with a major meet three weeks before the Games (Mujika, 2002), although this study did not investigate the complexion of each athlete’s taper. With new suits having changed the landscape dramatically, it is harder in recent years to isolate the effect of a taper versus putting on a bionic suit.
Improvements in tapers can be non-linear, which is good news for those requiring several peaks of varying importance throughout the year. A five to ten day taper, or resting, may be enough to quickly improve performance without impairing longer term progress. Trinity (2006) studied a sample of male collegiate swimmers and found the greatest gains in maximum power output and race performance both came in week 1 and week 3 of a three taper.
Another non-linear option is to taper and then increase volume at the end of the taper. Computer simulation by Thomas (2009) revealed this method is superior to a traditional taper. Computer simulation is not reality, but the result makes intuitive sense, in that a taper allows for physical peaking, but a short rebuilding phase allows the swimmer to race while closer to his or her normal training routine. Expect great individual variation with this tactic, but this unconventional approach may work for those who deliver peak times in heavy training blocks but underperform while tapered.
Tapers are highly variable and individual, but general concepts do emerge. Increasing intensity and decreasing volume are generally shown to work, but the balance of these variables may change by circumstance. Regardless of what approach you apply, never ignore qualitative factors like confidence and feel to blend the art of the taper with the science.
- Papoti M, Martins LE, Cunha SA, Zagatto AM, Gobatto CA. Effects of taper on swimming force and swimmer performance after an experimental ten-week training program. J Strength Cond Res. 2007 May;21(2):538-42.
- Thomas L, Mujika I, Busso T. Computer simulations assessing the potential performance benefit of a final increase in training during pre-event taper. J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Sep;23(6):1729-36.
- Trinity JD, Pahnke MD, Reese EC, Coyle EF. Maximal mechanical power during a taper in elite swimmers. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2006 Sep;38(9):1643-9.
- Trinity JD, Pahnke MD, Sterkel JA, Coyle EF. Maximal power and performance during a swim taper. Int J Sports Med. 2008 Jun;29(6):500-6. Epub 2007 Oct 24.
- Trappe S, Costill D, Thomas R. Effect of swim taper on whole muscle and single muscle fiber contractile properties. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2001 Jan;33(1):48-56.
- Mujika I. The influence of training characteristics and tapering on the adaptation in highly trained individuals: a review. Int J Sports Med. 1998 Oct;19(7):439-46.
- Kubukeli ZN, Noakes TD, Dennis SC. Training techniques to improve endurance exercise performances. Sports Med. 2002;32(8):489-509.
- Mujika I, Padilla S, Pyne D.Swimming performance changes during the final 3 weeks of training leading to the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. Int J Sports Med. 2002 Nov;23(8):582-7.
By Allan Phillips. Allan and his wife Katherine are heavily involved in the strength and conditioning community, for more information refer to Pike Athletics.