Thoughts on Race-Preparation for Swimming

After spending ten years as a swimming coach, I find it hard to come to mid-February without standing on a pool deck somewhere. I got a question about “tapering” and I thought I would post up some of my thoughts on the process. For those unfamiliar with a taper, it is the gradual reduction of training volume and intensity in order to help induce a super-compensation effect (the body outperforms previous best performances). It is interesting that in other sports, this process is called peaking; the language has a strong, positive connotation, it implies peak performance. In swimming, the word “taper” suggests cutting back; not really a positive or negative connotation, it implies “just take it easy, and everything will fall into place.” If that’s your approach, why even bother holding practice?

As a coach, I always hated the word taper because it suggested that somehow once “taper” started, that practice was so much different from the day before, when in fact it is a very gradual process. All tapers should be like a smooth commercial airplane landing: Keep them steady and predictable, no sudden or drastic changes in altitude, and before you realize it, you’re on the ground. Jim Steen, the Kenyon College swimming coach (58 national titles in NCAA Div III), calls it “race-prep,” which makes it sound like the swimmer is prepping and refining for battle, not just resting. I like that term, because while rest is essential, it is the preparation and attention to detail that really makes the taper work… that, and all the good quality work you (hopefully) put in during the season.

There are lots of variables that go into a good race-preparation phase. Challenging and deliberate practice during the season. Goals met and obstacles overcome during the swim season. More importantly, the race prep phase should be a natural extension of the coach’s day to day approach. If a drill-sergeant coach becomes laid back during race prep, in order to let the swimmers rest, it will confuse the hell out of the swimmers, and possibly make them lose confidence in the coach’s knowledge. I think this is common, because coaches might want to try “The Auburn Taper,” or “the Race Club taper.” Stick with what has worked for you all season. My suggestion is that if you’re interested in doing things like they do (did) at the Race Club, run your whole season like that, not just your race prep phase.

That being said, I think there are some general rules regarding the race-preparation phase. I write this knowing full well that lots of coaches would disagree on how many days rest certain groups of swimmers should get. Rule one is “know your swimmers.” Your sprinters train differently from another team’s sprinters (only you, the coach, knows exactly what ingredients and how much of them went into your training). You might have women who need as much rest as the men, or vice versa. Differences within genders can vary as much as differences between genders. Outside stressors (school, family, work, etc.) make a difference, too. If swimmers were unemotional robots, unaffected by the stresses of the team environment and every day life, did their practices and recovered adequately during seasonal training, here are some the “rules of thumb.”

  • Bigger, more muscular dudes who are going to be sprinting (100 yards and shorter) should look for a 3-week race-prep phase. The first week should involve a lot of 50’s from the blocks with a lot of rest, and mix in a lot of low-intensity recovery swims. Broken swims are really good during the second week. That last week might only involve breakouts. Some teams have been known to do even less.
  • Women who are sprinting might do something similar to that, but it might be condensed into a 10-17 day period. This would also be a good plan for some of the younger guys who aren’t that big and strong yet.
  • I think that distance swimmers (500 fr and up) need to have their yards cut back over a 7-8 day period. If they are swimming the 200 free as well and they have a little giddy-up to their stroke (finishing sprint speed), I might give more rest — e.g., I would have them do half of the distance swimmers’ practice, then do a broken 200 freestyle, then warm them down and get em out of practice — while the rest of the bunch might still have another 2,000 yards to swim.

One of the tough things is balancing all of these race-prep plans with only six lanes and 2.5 hours. You have to get creative…

The last week of race-prep — for every swimmer — should always be very personalized. The swimmer is rehearsing his/her pre-meet warm-up from start to finish in real time. You might start broken swims at 4:30pm. The swimmers have from 3:15 to 4:30 to stretch, warm-up, swim laps, do pace-work, sprints, etc… moving at their own pace. Coaches are only answering questions, but not bossing swimmers around. Think about it… you aren’t going to be bossing them around and chasing them into the water at your championship meet. If you are having to do that at your championship meet, god help you! They have gotten to this point, so let them enjoy acting like big boys and girls. If you think they’re just going to mess around the whole time if you give them that much freedom, then pair up 2 upperclassmen and 2 underclassmen and have them stretch and warm-up in groups of four.

I firmly believe in this approach. They won’t have a team warm-up at your championship meet , so they need to get to used to varied warm-up schedules, crowded pools, and 100 different swimmers all swimming different warm-ups.

I think one of the best indicators is mood. If a swimmer is down in the dumps, s/he may need a little more rest. I think mood is as accurate of an indicator as you can get. Sometimes more accurate than heart rate. Again, this requires the coach to “know the swimmer,” and coaches with stronger emotional intelligence skills (i.e., the coaches whose teams consistently kick butt) seem to do a great job at this.

For those swimmers who are prone to get nervous, one great suggestion I got from a veteran coach was to have “10 day” meetings (every ten days or so during the race prep phase)… just a five minute chat to see how things are going, and to check in with the swimmer to see how the race-prep process is going. This is a good venue for the swimmer to communicate concerns to you. Sometimes the swimmer is worried as hell and losing confidence, but s/he is trying to hide that from you, and those concerns don’t get communicated. So, having that poolside chat lets the swimmer get that concern of his/her chest; then, the swimmer can rest easy and return to the real labor s/he needs to do in the pool.

Above all, insist that all swimmers are intentional in their actions… that they pay attention to what they are doing at every phase of every practice. If you are worried about them losing their edge, have a simulated meet instead of doing broken swims 2 weeks out from your championship meet … and put a wager on it. You gotta find ways to keep them sharp and mentally engaged during that four week period, without wearing them down physically.

As this time of year rolls around, I am nostalgic and miss swimming quite a bit. The anticipation of great swims was often like the feeling on Christmas Eve as a child.

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