Time to taper!
No three words in the endurance athletes vocabulary inspire such joy and excitement as the ones above.
Tapering is the icing on the cake after a season of hard training: the gradual easing-up of intensity and distance in one's workouts in anticipation of a big race. Timing a taper to align with a personal best performance is a difficult and nerve-wracking task, requiring discipline and a certain amount of restraint (not something endurance athletes are known for!).
A swimmer's taper is different than a runner's or cyclist's in that there is a lot more involved than a decrease in distance per workout. Sprinting, swimming long and easy, pulling with partial or full gear, and delicate changes in daily yardage are all components of a successful taper, and even some of the most talented swimmers have trouble with the timing and execution of such a precise plan.
While each swimmer's taper is a deeply personal and unique thing, what follows is a general guideline for a do-it-yourself taper and what you can do on your own if you don't have a coach to help guide you along.
A taper can last anywhere from one to four weeks. Anything less would be considered a few days rest, and anything more would be pushing your luck in terms of maintaining your peak conditioning. Since no two swimmers are alike, there is no fixed way to taper, but a good place to start is to model your yardage after the 100:75:50 rule.
That is, if a full workout for you is 4,000 yards, then the first week you taper 75 percent of that distance, or 3,000 yards. The next week you taper 50 percent of your full workouts, or 2,000 yards. So the 100:75:50 taper is a two-week taper where you skim down the length of your swims to half of what you were covering initially.
If you are a sprinter who doesn't train heavy yardage, you may only want to taper a week at 100:75. If you are a distance swimmer who gets really broken down with long workouts and challenging sets throughout the season, you may want to take a more luxurious taper of 100:75:66:50, a three-week taper. Remember, this is a personal thing, and each of you may find that your peak-conditioning needs differ from the swimmer in the next lane. It may take you a few tries at a taper to determine what is best for you.
Rest and Recovery
In addition to decreasing yardage, it is important to allow your body a chance to rest and recover from the beating it has taken all season in the midst of your training. You may begin this process by giving yourself more rest during interval training, and listening to your body at each turn. If your muscles are sore, you should not be sprinting or practicing pace sets until you feel fresh and energetic.
If you feel lethargic a week into your taper, allow yourself a day off completely. Get lots of sleep. Watch what you eat, since you are easing up on your training intensity. Under no circumstances should you be in the weight room for the month before your race, even if you have been on a consistent weightlifting program.