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The Great Taper Caper

Spend enough time around competitive swimming, and you’ll eventually encounter tapering. Tapering can be a useful coaching technique in some scenarios, but in age group swimming, is it being misapplied?

The concept of taper was originally a training tool for runners. Designed to maximize performance at a strategic time, tapering is now being used in swimming and other high-intensity sports. At a basic level, a “taper” is just a strategic reduction in training intensity in the days leading up to an important competition. By backing off their training, athletes can lessen fatigue and be fresh when they compete, potentially leading to enhanced performance. But tapering isn’t a silver bullet. It has limitations, and is only beneficial to athletes who have been training at high intensity.

More importantly tapering will not be effective for younger athletes who have not yet reached puberty. If your swimmer hasn’t gone through puberty, their bodies won’t benefit from a reduction in training, and they will not benefit from a taper. In Age Group swimmers, taper is unnecessary because the muscle mass is not large enough in most cases, to require a great deal of rest. Prepubescent swimmers' performance capacity is different than older swimmers. Not only because they seem to have more energy but because physiologically, muscle mass and strength do not develop until after puberty. So the focus on intense training and then tapering takes away focus from technique training. Studies have shown over training in swimmers under 14 can actually reduce the chances of later success.

Tapering has its greatest effect for athletes who otherwise spend their seasons swimming tired. But even as it helps fatigued athletes a strategic point, it won’t help them qualify for meets through the season. By racing tired through the season, they may never post qualifying times. I guess the obvious question is- how does that help anyone?

Although a taper can help an athlete perform their best at a specific time, it doesn’t help them be efficient in the water or effective in their technique. The cycle of over-train and then taper can take away valuable instruction time from improving technique and making athletes better swimmers.

I’ve heard swim coaches who talk about a taper like it’s a magical key to swim coaching success, but a beneficial taper is a tricky business of balancing a helpful recovery period against the potential to actually decrease performance through a loss of fitness.


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