It's About the Little Things - Tapering

So far, we have looked at what it takes to make the Olympic Trials, and how a swimmer then advances from the Trials to the Olympic Games. But what about the last-minute preparation that each athlete undertakes in the final days leading up to the Trials or the Games? If this is the biggest test of their athletic life, can they really cram as if it were a college exam? The answer? It depends.

There are many variables that go into race day preparation for athletes in general and in this case, swimmers. Weight training, technique, yardage, turns, starts and end of race touches. Yet with all that work, how does a swimmer go from high intensity training to delivering a fast time at the Olympic Trials?


In the literal sense, “tapering” means decreasing the intensity and volume of an athlete’s training regiment as you get closer to a specific date. Whether it’s Junior Nationals, Senior Nationals, NCAA or the Olympic Trials, all swimmers have one big swim meet every year for which they taper. So in simplest form, what’s the reason behind tapering? So you show up as fit and as fresh as possible. Too much taper and you’re flat, too little and you show up over cooked.  It’s equal parts art and science and behind every great performance, is a perfect taper, which is a direct byproduct of a close athlete/coach relationship. This isn’t tealeaves, this is precision, and in a sport where thousandths of a second determine medals, a taper is often the difference maker in going home versus going for gold.

While the Taper might be the most important component from a physiological standpoint, another part of a swimmer’s race preparation is the annual leg shaving.  Yes, I said annual, and yes, both men and women will shave their legs around this time.  For female swimmers, it is the one time of year that we have smooth legs. While there have been different performance analysts who can site drag coefficient variables—between smooth leg and hairy leg swimmers—the real benefit to the athlete, is probably more psychological than physiological.

Aside from the common physical and mental components that all swimmers have in common, it’s important to remember that outside of those common core practices, every swimmer who has or will make the Olympic team, took a different path to get there.

Some swimmers will have fully tapered and rested for this swim meet, in an effort to simply make the team, while other swimmers show up to Trials and are only partially rested.

Swimmers like Michael Phelps have gone through a minimal taper leading up to Trials, and will improve their times between now and London, after doing some small tweaks in their training, followed by a full-on taper. Why would he show up to Trials without a fully rested body? It’s simple…swimmers who are fully tapered for the Trials will usually post about the same times, or possibly slower, at the London Olympics—a place where the competition is even more intense and the podium times are most assuredly faster.

Now, with the London Olympics merely 28 days away, the athletes will focus on starts, turns and making small tweaks, that can account for a few tenths—or even hundredths—of a second, which sometimes amounts to the difference between winning a gold, silver, bronze or no medal at all.

So what does a taper feel like?

When the three Phelps children would taper for our big, year-end swim meet, it would drive Mom crazy.  The swimming pool was the place where we left most of our energy, but during a taper, we came home with a full body of steam.  In addition to the extra sleep, imperative to a taper, we were 100% rest-less! When athletes taper, it’s a number of contrasting and conflicting feelings going on inside of their body. Imagine downing two espressos and an energy drink before laying down for a nap. That’s what the push/pull feeling of a taper feels like to a swimmer’s body.

Sitting still feels impossible, you want to move (but you’re supposed to be off your feet and resting), you are alert, awake and almost feel “twitchy.”  Mentally, you’re ready to compete.  When swimmers can zone in and harness the energy, THEN they are ready to swim… and swim fast!