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The Calm Before The Storm

Feb. 28, 2017

By Alexandra Lloyd

The Notre Dame men’s swimming program began its biggest meet of the season yesterday at the Atlantic Coast Conference Men’s Swimming Championships in Atlanta, and while one may think that the lead up to this competition involved intense training, the Irish spent the weeks leading up to the ACC meet slowing down.

This process is known as “The Taper.”

Used by swimmers at every level, tapering is a training technique that involves less-grueling workouts before critical meets. According to USA Swimming, an Australian coach, Forbes Carlisle, was the first to describe the taper, and today nearly all coaches accept the necessity of a successful taper. Runners also will incorporate a taper into their training schedule, especially those running marathons and long distances. Runner’s World recommends about three weeks of tapering before a marathon, but for shorter distances there is lot more variation based on the individual athlete. In both swimming and running, the taper is critical to physical performance and also requires a lot of mental toughness to trust the months of previous training.

The Notre Dame swimming team has worked to perfect their training regimen and the taper is certainly a part of that. Head coach Mike Litzinger explains: “The taper is kind of a conventional tool that all coaches use to get peak performance. If you simplify it, you train to overload and then you rest to regain strength, speed and, hopefully, at a higher level than when you started.”

Robby Whitacre, a junior from Oceanport, New Jersey, swims the individual medley and backstroke and describes the taper as “a super compensation for your muscle groups when you’re training all year and then you drop and then hopefully you recover and are better than you were before.” After months of weight training and long days of swimming, the weeks leading up to the biggest meet of the year are crucial for allowing the athletes’ bodies to adapt to all the training.

Notre Dame swimmers focus on two elements of the taper: weight training and swimming. For both training formats, the athletes maintain a high level of intensity and speed while decreasing the volume of work. Fewer reps in the weight room and decreased yardage combine to give the swimmers the rest they need to perform at peak level for the championship meet.

“That’s what sets the championship apart and it’s a tool you keep in your back pocket,” said senior Catherine Mulquin. “Being able to go decently fast times without tapering, that gives you the confidence and once you do hit the taper, you just skyrocket.”

While the goal of the taper and all elements of swim training is maximizing speed, there are many techniques and strategies for the best way to do so. The tapering process in particular is unique to each swimmer. Depending on muscle mass, gender, event schedule and type of swimmer, the taper differs greatly from athlete to athlete.

According to Litzinger, “There’s a rule of thumb for men and women, and a hard date that I look at where this is when we’re going to increase our speed work, this is where we’re going to decrease our yardage, here they’re going to pull back on the strength training. So, there’s certainly a plan but at the end of the day, especially the week before the championships, I could be writing seven different workouts. It’s very individualized at the very end.”

While a large amount of the taper is about physical preparation and resting the muscles, the psychological component for both the coaches and athletes also plays a huge role in taper success.

“There’s some science to it, but there’s a lot of art to it and part of the art is getting to know your athlete and know what they respond to,” Litzinger said. “That’s why you see a lot of first-year athletes struggle a little bit because what they’re used to in their high school or age group program is certainly a different paradigm. (Sophomore) Meaghan O’Donnell, who’s a fantastic athlete for us, I got to know her over the summer so we spent a year and a half together and I was able to craft her training schedule and rest schedule a little bit differently this year. Now she’s headed to the NCAA championship. It’s a learning curve for them and for me.”

Notre Dame is in just its second year of combining the men and women’s swim teams under a single head coach, and with a year of experience, the coaches and athletes have great faith in each other and belief in the potential of the team. Finishing seventh at their championship meet in Atlanta, Georgia, the Irish women shattered several school records in relay and individual events. As the men finished out their taper and maintained the mentality necessary to perform at the collegiate level, they are anxious to match the results of their female teammates.

Mulquin, who broke school records in relay and individual events, is confident that the men will give a strong to showing to follow up the women. “They definitely took note of what we did, and seeing what their teammates have done gives them confidence. We’re definitely prepared, the coaches definitely know what they’re doing, it definitely worked this year.”

This confidence in the coaching staff and the idea of trusting the process is very important for the swimmers. Whitacre shared his insights on the mental aspect of the taper, saying, “It’s always really hard for me. I love to work hard and I’m a big proponent of you get out what you put in and during taper we’re not putting in as much yardage, the intensity isn’t as high as it is in December and I’ll think this is going to affect me. This year especially, I’ve really learned to trust the coaches; they’re professionals and they know what they’re doing. As you can see with the women it worked out really well, and historically it’s much harder to taper women than it is guys, they have a much smaller window of prime speed time so I think that bodes well for us, and I’m pretty excited.”

Litzinger also explained the value of the week leading up to the men’s ACC Championship when the women are competing and the men finishing out their Taper. “The best part about the resting when we’re gone with the women at the ACC’s is that the guys do the work out, but they take their time, they mess around, the music’s on. It’s good there’s not a coach standing over them. They can relax and do their thing. I think that’s kind of the magic.”

Excitement and anticipation seems to be the mood the Irish swimmers as they headed to Atlanta and the confidence that is so crucial to the taper is palpable when talking to Litzinger and his athletes.

“This is the second year (of a combined team) and first full cycle of men and women together so I think it impacted everybody. They knew what to expect from the coaching staff, we knew what to expect from them. There’s definitely a physiological component, but I think most of it was mental. They were very confident. They believed in what we were doing they knew they were doing the right things in the water and that’s half the battle. When your mind is right, you’re ready to go fast no matter what,” Litzinger explains.

Mulquin also firmly believes in maintaining the right mindset to maximize the benefits of the taper. “I think the worst thing a swimmer could do going into it is start questioning it because once you do, you have less confidence and what makes it work so well is when you have complete trust in the process. I think that’s something that really helped us this year was everyone just fully bought into the process and trusted what the coaches knew.”

This certainly rang true for the Notre Dame women as they swam in Atlanta, and as the men headed south, they hope that the process will work for them as well.

“A lot of coaches say that the tap er is 90 percent mental, if you get up behind the block at ACCs and think you’re going to beat the guy next to you and you put in the work in December and November that’s just a huge advantage,” says Whitacre. “I trust the coaches. We’re all in the same boat, you’re going to the ACCs to swim your lifetime best times. We’re in super limbo, the women just got back and they swam really well and all everyone wants to do is just get to Atlanta. But it’s just trust the process, you’ve been doing the sets the coaches tell you to do all year. Why would you question that process now?”


Alexandra Lloyd joined the Fighting Irish Media student writing team in 2017.