Taper is a sacred and loved aspect of swimming. Few other sports provide such long rest placing high importance on a meet. We've discussed taper in the past, but one question I've received from readers which I haven't tackled is:
"G. John, I'm starting to taper for trials, but I feel horrible. Do you have any suggestions?"
Any discussion regarding "feel" has minimal hard evidence, as "feel" is a subjective term. However, during taper, a time where yardage and intensity decrease, one would assume the athlete would continually improve linearly with the amount of recovery.
Two main systems are likely to control soreness during taper:
For many of you Olympic Trials is the largest competition for your career. Therefore, you've done more preparation (yardage, intensity, time between your last taper, dry-land, etc.) than ever before. For the purpose of this article, we'll call this volume. If your overall volume increased, it is likely you are more broken down than ever before. When tired, the body struggles to produce power and recruit fast twitch muscle fibers (type II), preferencing slow twitch, type I fibers. Therefore, the amount of lactate produced and hydrogen ion accumulation decrease.
Using slower twitch muscle fibers fibers allows you to perform more volume. However, it silences type II muscle fibers. Once taper beings, the volume decreases, but a higher intensity is desired (in most cases) to mimic meet conditions. These faster conditions wake-up doormat type II muscle fibers, likely making them sore due to disuse.
This theory has not been supported and many programs will dismiss this theory, as they feel they stress their type II muscle fibers throughout the season, in the water and during dry-land (trust me taking 1 minute rest between your body weight squats isn’t cutting it!). Simply put, this is not the case. During fatigue it is difficult to fully utilize these structures; especially the largest fibers and even low volume programs perform more work in and out of the pool, breaking down the athlete impairing full fiber usage.
Recent posts on Swimming Science have discussed the role of the mind on swimming. I'm by no means a psychologist, yet most coaches must tackle the psychological component (The cause of choking and how to avoid it and coaching yourself after a bad race). During the season great athletes suppress, turn-off, their mind to noxious or painful stimuli. This isn't a knock on these athletes, but returning to your reactive animal is essential for sporting success.
Once the brain turns off pain signals, then the neural circuitry, warning the body of danger, is impaired. This ability occurs at the Golgi Tendon Organ (GTO), structures which measure tension. These structures often inhibit the body by sending warning signals to the brain indicating high tension and increased injury risk. However, it is theorized great athletes are able to psych themselves up and impair/deactivate this warning system.
Anecdotal evidence of this phenomena occurs when a mother performs an unnatural feat (lifting a car, etc.) to save her child. One of my favorite quotes comes from legendary strength coach and Kettlebell master Pavel Tsatsouline:
"You muscles already have the strength to lift a car, you just don't know it yet"
During taper, athletes think magical things happen and the body should feel perfect every day. This mental alteration starts having the athlete think too much about how they feel, inflating expectations by scanning the body for soreness, heightening the sensitivity of the GTO.
Typically these posts have solutions to the reasons, but no possible answers exist other than, you've already put in the work, don't expect miracles! Get your mind in the right place, understand the process, and remain a reactive animal!
Good Luck at Olympic Trials and the Olympics!