The Art and Science of Tapering Sprinters

The taper is a period of time when you move from in-season training to preparing for a meet

Mike Bottom is regarded as one of the world's top sprint coaches.  The former co-head coach of men's swimming at the University of California, Berkeley, he was named head coach of the University of Michigan swim team in June, 2008. 

In 2000, he coached four of the eight Olympic finalists in the 50 meter free, including co-gold medalists Gary Hall, Jr. and Anthony Ervin. At the 2004 Games, he coached the gold and silver medalists, Hall and Duje Draganja. Here, Mike talks about tapering sprinters:

Mike, you've likened sprinters to high-strung thoroughbreds. Training them is hard enough, but how do you taper them?
The taper is really specific. Generally, I start designing the taper about six weeks before the big meet. From that point on, it's very specific to each individual athlete.

How would you define "taper?"
The taper is a period of time when you move from in-season training to preparing for a meet. The length of the taper is determined by the type of meet for which you're tapering.

If you're tapering for the Olympics, you're going to do a full taper. If you have Olympic Trials prior to the Olympics, you need a two-pronged taper. So you have to think, "OK, I'm going to taper this much for Trials, but save my best effort for the Games by continuing to taper after Trials."

What does a taper involve?
It's a reduction in workload, specifically anaerobic and anaerobic threshold and aerobic volume training. In addition, the taper also implies a decrease in workload in the weight room.

So there's nothing mystical about the taper? You just gradually increase the intensity and decrease the volume of the work your athletes are doing?
Right. I even stay on the same recovery and work cycle that we use during the rest of the season. For example, we might do some speed work on, say, Tuesdays and Saturdays. Whatever that cycle is, I try to stay with those days. Then the other days might be recovery days or aerobic days—that sort of thing.

Do you give your swimmers more rest during taper?
Yes, the rest intervals are longer, and the intensity of the intense stuff is higher. The in-between stuff falls out—even work that's in the red zone, with heart rates 150 and above. Everything in that category falls out for a sprinter.

What are some of the factors that go into designing an individual taper?
There are several factors—age, physical maturity, testosterone level. If someone is really hairy, chances are his testosterone levels are high. In tapering people with less hair, though, I need to keep their workload up longer to the point where it's dramatic. I'll have two different groups and some guys in between. Some are only getting two to two-and-a-half weeks of rest, while others are getting six weeks. That's really how dramatic the difference can be.

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