Losing My Touch
Tapering. No topic in the swimming community is given such reverence, spoken of so solemnly, and surrounded by more mysticism than tapering. It’s a constant source of dialogue, and coaches and swimmers alike are always looking for the perfect taper. Whether it’s volume, intensity, or workload cycling, everyone wants to know the secret.
I’ve always found this dynamic to be very interesting for the following reasons-
1. The premise behind tapering is VERY simple.
2. The 6 months of work you do BEFORE you taper matters more than the 2 weeks of work you do during a taper.
3. Other coach’s tapering plans are not are not relevant to yours because the type of taper you do is based off the type of work you did.
4. Barring stupid decisions, you’re going to get what you’re going to get.
5. There is NO magic in tapering. Rabbits don’t come out of hats.
That being said, I’d like to explore a concept that’s rarely considered, and it may help explain why some tapers just don’t go like you’d expect, especially with certain types of swimmers. We’re often focused on the physiological changes associated with taper, and how to manage that process. In this article, I’d like to explore how many tapers are blown when coaches and swimmers fail to consider how tapering decisions affect the maintenance of technical skill, and the feel swimmers have for their strokes.
The purpose of tapering is to remove accumulated fatigue while preserving fitness. As we train, we develop fitness while also beginning to carry fatigue. Fitness is developed slowly, but also decays slowly, whereas fatigue builds quickly and also dissipates quickly. When performed a
The best tapers maximize the maintenance of fitness while also maximizing the removal of fatigue. If you do ‘too much’, fitness will be maintained, but residual fatigue will remain. If you do too little, fatigue will be removed, but fitness will be lost. It’s a very simple concept.
The problem is ‘too much’ or ‘too little’ can represent A LOT of different scenarios in practice, and each individual presents their own tolerances to fatigue and they lose fitness at different rates. There are also different types of fitness and different types of fatigue. It starts getting really messy, which is part of the reason there is so much fascination with tapering.
Unfortunately, this is just the physiological aspect of tapering. What TECHNICAL changes occur during taper? How do swimmers maintain or improve their skills during taper? How does feel for the water change when swimmers begin to have more energy, more power, more flexibility, and all the other PHYSICAL changes that happen during taper?
The physical definitely impacts the technical. How is the taper planned to ensure that the impact is positive as opposed to negative? While it’s generally accepted that tapering is an individual process, the technical aspect adds a new layer that can make it even MORE individual. Two swimmers may have very similar physiological needs, but require very different approaches to maintain their skills.
I’d like to take a look at a much less considered aspect of tapering, one that may dramatically affect how a given taper is approached. At first this added complexity can make the tapering process seem even more daunting. However, once we focus more on the skill aspect of tapering, it can make a lot of our decisions simpler.
The perfect physiological taper is going to be useless if a swimmer loses their ability to feel the water or the nuance of their skills. They will be like a fish out of water. As reductions in volume are required to allow for dissipation of the fatigue, this also means a reduction in practice. For some swimmers, this can mean a loss of skill, particularly when the wrong types of training are reduced or eliminated. As even subtle changes in skill can have dramatic impacts on performance, these changes matter.
Below are some simple guidelines and considerations for managing the tapering process from a technical perspective. When tapering swimmers, results will be more consistent and more dramatic when we ensure that swimmers are peaking technically, as well as physiologically.
It’s Not Only About the Volume
If you find that someone loses their touch very quickly, the solution is NOT just to keep their volume up, although it can be. The solution is to find what training activities help them retain their skills best, focus on those activities, and then remove other activities that don’t contribute as much to skill maintenance. The TOTAL volume is of less consequence compared to the volume of the training and skill components that are most impactful for a given swimmer (see below).
While maintaining volume and essentially leaving the program unchanged might reduce the likelihood of getting out of a groove, it’s also not tapering. There needs to be a reduction in load, somewhere. What needs to be removed is the work that doesn’t matter in the short-term.
I’m not a fan of the idea that a swimmer doesn’t need to taper or doesn’t respond to taper. I would definitely agree that there are swimmers who fail to respond to TRADITIONAL tapering approaches. For these individuals, we need to find ways to reduce fatigue, while maintaining skills and fitness. For swimmers who have struggled with tapering in the past, they’re likely missing one of these two key components. How can you keep their rhythm and feel while doing less?
Find the Important Training and Skill Components
What helps a given swimmer feel good in the water? Are there certain technical exercises? Are there certain training components? Is it the use of particular training accessories? Are there particular speeds that really help swimmers groove their strokes?
The answer to these questions will help guide what type of work needs to be done during the taper. This will be individual and it won’t always make sense. There are no rules as to what types of training is continued, or how that training is performed; just results. If a swimmer feels that a certain activity really helps their feel for the water, it’s worth making sure that work is included in the tapering process.
Coaches might say that they include drills in the tapering process, so the technical aspect is covered. From my perspective, this is definitely not an effective thought process. Drills probably aren’t going to get the job done. More important are the types of training that are retained or emphasized during the taper. Swimmers get their feel mostly from the work they do.
There will be times when the technical becomes more important than the physiological. Traditionally, you would expect to see a reduction or even elimination of hard aerobic work in the taper for a sprinter. However, some sprinters may find that retaining limited doses of this type of work helps them feel their skills. Similarly, while resistance loading can be stressful and thus preferably limited during resting, it may be critical for some swimmers to maintain their skills.
It doesn’t have to make sense. It just has to work. If swimmers feel strongly enough to speak up, it worth spending the time to listen.
Fit or Fresh?
Some swimmers ‘feel’ the water better when they’re really fresh and some feel the water better when they carry some fatigue. Figure out what this looks like for each swimmer. How can you tell the difference? Observe what happens when swimmers get more rest.
What happens after a day off? Some swimmers light it up, and some swimmers struggle to get going? The better they respond to a day off, the more likely it is that they’ll be able to maintain their skills during periods of reduced training. Additionally, pay attention to what happens during any resting cycle. When processing what happened, add the ‘fit or fresh’ framework to your evaluation.
Once you have a sense of where the swimmer resides on that spectrum, you can begin to make tapering decisions based upon that framework. When you’re considering multiple options, go with a little bit more work for the ‘fit’ swimmer, and a little bit less for the ‘fresh’ swimmer.
What Happens After a Layoff?
A great opportunity to determine how skill is affecting a swimmer’s taper is to evaluate performance after a layoff. It is my belief that skill and feel for the water is lost during a layoff as much or more so than physiological fitness. This loss is not the same for all swimmers. The individuals that look GREAT right away seem to retain their skills much better than those who look terrible at the start of the season. I believe this is a technical phenomenon as much as a physical phenomenon.
For those swimmers that look great from the beginning, you can probably worry less about tapering from a skill perspective, and focus more on optimizing physiology while resting. These swimmers are naturally able to retain their skills when they don’t swim at all, so the reduced volume associated with tapering shouldn’t have much of a negative effect on their technical performance.
For those that look like they haven’t swum a lap in 2 years after not swimming for 2 weeks, you have a very different set of problems. The focus of the tapering process needs to shift from one of fitness maintenance to one of technical maintenance. No matter how locked in the physiological taper is, if there is not a directed effort towards skill retention, it will all fall apart, and it will fall apart fast.
Cut the Crap
A key strategy of a successful taper is the elimination of what DOESN’T need to be there. If you’ve already appreciated the importance of doing enough work to maintain the various fitness components necessary for required success. Hopefully, I’ve made a strong case for the importance of considering the work required to maintain technical excellence, and a swimmer’s confidence in their skills. This requires the retention of a new series.
With the requirement to maintain physical and technical abilities, this can lead to the need to include more volume. As described above, tapering ‘works’ by eliminating fatigue, and reducing volume is a really good strategy to eliminate fatigue, as supported by coaches’ experience and research. We now have to balance the need to retain skills and fitness, with the need to reduce volume.
The solution is to surgically remove all training that is not directly serving the purpose of enhancing skills and maintaining fitness. We have to be ruthless with what we choose to include, and what we choose to eliminate. If a training task does not have a clear, obvious purpose, it needs to go. This will ensure that all the work that’s performed is aiding performance, while still allowing for fatigue to dissipate.
Better Equals Longer
The better they are, the longer they can taper. ‘Better’ is always relative. It’s not so much about how fast they are, but how good their skills are. If they hold a ton of water, they always look good swimming, never take bad strokes, etc., they can probably handle a longer taper from a TECHNICAL perspective. If you have a miler and a sprinter with similar skills, the taper is still going to look very different because physiology does matter.
Really skilled swimmers can maintain their skills for a long time with less work. For these swimmers, the physiological aspects become the driving force for tapering decisions. There is also probably more room for error with these swimmers. In contrast, technical considerations are much more significant for swimmers with poorer or less consistent skills.
As with anything, there are exceptions.
Focus on the Required Work versus the Reason for Including It.
It’s can be hard to tell the difference between a technical need and a physiological need. If the tapering process is not going well, or has not gone well in the past, it’s very helpful to focus on what work the swimmer thrives on. Whether the reason is physiological or technical is secondary to the reality that it worked. This is the work that needs to be included in a taper. The rationale for including it can be determined later. The value in having physiological AND technical perspectives is that we have more lenses through which to view the process and form decision-making models.
Achieving more effective and consistent tapers can be the result of expanding upon what factors we consider when designing training. When you add skill maintenance to the tapering equation, it changes the decision-making process. For those individuals more susceptible to losing their skills, I feel that this becomes the PRIMARY driver of the tapering process. All the physical fitness in the world is going to be useless if swimmers feel as if they’ve lost their stroke. We have to do whatever is necessary to protect skill, and this is more and more true as ability level drops.
When trying to determine whether a tapering issue is physiological vs. technical, it can be useful to reflect on the guidelines above, while always looking to the work that appears to benefit each swimmer most. Occasionally, the work found to be beneficial might not ‘make sense’ from a physiological perspective, but make perfect sense from a technical perspective. This paradigm shift can be very helpful for coaches when trying to process what they know works, yet can’t figure out why.