Feature: What is tapering?

Frankie Comey, Author

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To any student not privy to the swimming way of life, any mention of the word “taper” raises questions. Many a time, I have found myself in a circle of swimmers who nonchalantly use the word. Myself, an athlete, was still perplexed. This swimming-specific conditioning technique, used by the Palo Alto High School swim team, actually entails a whole season of hard work. Swimmers endure hard practices through the regular season and then taper, or lessen the yardage that they swim in practices, before big meets.

Junior Ethan Look explained the concept of a taper.

“Essentially, tapering is a rest for the body,” Look said. “The first part of the taper process goes on through the season. We train straight through all of our dual meets. At the end of the regular season, we are all extremely tired.”

By tiring their bodies through the regular season, swimmers become accustomed to swimming tired with lactic acid in their muscles. Carrying this burden through the league season, swimmers look to maximize their potential at the end of the regular season when qualifying swimmers will compete in the Santa Clara Valley Athletic League meet, and later, the Central Coast Section meet.

Another swimmer, junior Omri Newman, gave his take.

“Before our big meets we slowly decrease the yardage per practice to where we are basically just getting in, warming up, working on some technical stuff with our stroke and then we are done,” Newman said. “That is what tapering is. It keeps our muscles fresh and it gives us time for our bodies to flush out all the lactic acid in our muscles.”

Look echoed Newman’s sentiments.

“We feel stronger on the back half our races,” Look said.  “Unlike before where the back half might have been more like holding on for dear life.”

Being able to finish strong at the back half of the race is indispensable. While most opposing swimmers will be exhausted and have their “kick” in the earlier stages of the race, Paly swimmers use their power at the last half of the race, swooping in to finish and hopefully steal a podium spot.

In addition to helping the swimmers physically, time out of the pool gives swimmers an opportunity to visualize and attack the mental side of competitive swimming, something that is often overlooked in the heat of the moment.

“Tapering is a mental rest,” Newman said. “We work on the mental aspect of racing, how to approach our competition, and how to approach our final meets. We do visualizations of our races in the dance studio with the lights out in a peaceful setting in order to imagine what the races will be like.”

Having more energy at the last leg of the race naturally gives swimmers an upper hand over their competition. Similarly, visualization and mental preparation hopefully equips swimmers with something their opponents won’t have. The mental side of swim races cannot be overlooked.

“We turn ourselves into smarter swimmers,” Newman said. “In high school, so many swimmers are young and athletic, it’s the smarter swimmer who wins the race.”

Any Paly students with friends or classmates that swim competitively know the rigors of a swim season and its brutal schedule. 6 a.m. practices take a lot out of busy student athletes. Look is vehement supporter of tapering.

“Personally, I love tapering because it allows me to focus on how I am racing with strength unlike any time leading up to that point,” Look said. “And it really works, after only one week of fully tapering, I dropped 10 seconds in my 500 yard freestyle for a personal best in the event.”

Tapering routines undeniably yield results for budding swimmers. Countless hours of hard work go into it, but the results can mean the difference between a CCS berth and an early end to a season.