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Breaking Myths: Swimmers Can Lift During Taper

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People always ask me what my favorite part of the swim season was. People assumed it had to be at championships when everyone is swimming fast. Or it must be during a training trip when you can really push your athletes. If it wasn’t that, it must have been getting to meet the new team at the beginning of each season.

My answer was always none of the above.

My favorite part of the season was always testing week in the weight room right before championships. Athletes’ energy levels were high and they were ready to discover how strong they truly were. They would push one another and I could just sit back and watch the light bulbs turning on. It didn’t matter that we were tapering; they knew their new found strength would translate to them being faster in the pool.

With all the joy I got out of that, I still cannot understand why the myth of lifting heavy still exists in the swimming world.

During taper, I still see one of two things happen:

  1. No lifting you occur during taper
  2. Athletes should only do lightweight and higher reps

Both thought processes run contrary to what the point of taper is. During taper, intensity remains high but the volume is drastically reduced over the course of so many weeks. You are simulating more race speeds but allowing the body to recover fully. With reduced volume, the body and mind feels fresher. That is why so many athletes swim incredibly fast during championships.

Any good lifting program is similar to training in the pool. The season begins with an acclimation phase before switching into a muscular endurance phase. After the muscular endurance phase the athlete would transition into their strength phase. The final stage of training would be a power or speed phase.

Throughout each phase, intensity and volume will fluctuate to provide the muscle with new stimulus so adaptation occurs. The power/speed phase is no different than a peaking/taper phase in the pool. Intensity is high, volume is kept low, and rest periods are increased to allow athletes to reach the appropriate intensity.   

When I was at the collegiate level, my goal was to have the athletes peaking for championships. My reasoning was to have them feel great in the water as well as outside of it. That meant they were fast and strong. My first year we lifted all the way up until the week before championships. I had athletes maxing out on things such as back squat, deadlift, and clean & jerk. It was fun seeing the light bulbs going off for the athletes. Many PRs were hit and athletes didn’t ruin their taper.

At championships, most swam their fastest time. But as with all things, afterwards, some athletes expressed confusion with my methodology. A few thought we should switch to light weight, more volume. Even after I explained the science to them (doing so would break down the muscle more and in the process make them more sore), there was some reservation.

I took that feedback and consulted with an Ohio State strength and conditioning coach in charge of their Olympic sports. I discussed my philosophy and the reservations some athletes were having with training. The coach said my philosophy was on point. However, he did make a suggestion to give the athletes an option of when they wanted to have a test week. In doing so, it would create ownership in their training and buy into the philosophy .  

Implementation of that advice paid huge dividends over the next two seasons. Gone were any concerns about lifting heavy before championships. The athletes usually chose to test about two weeks out from the big meet and an option was given for maintenance work after that. The athletes set numerous PRs, felt strong, and their energy levels remained high. In the pool, athletes were fast and energetic.

Those two championship seasons were awesome because everyone knew they were going to crush their best performances. All because we established that with a properly designed training program, you can lift during taper.

About the Author

Brian O’Neill has close to 20 years experience in the fitness industry. He is a Certified Strength & Conditioning Coach, USAW-L1 and CrossFit L1. A former Division I Swimmer at Fordham, Brian coached swimmers for 15 years at the club and college level. It was at the collegiate level that he formed a passion for helping athletes in the weight room. Brian has spent the past 7 years working in the private sector blending his philosophy of swimming and weight training together. Brian spends his week at Peak Human Performance working with lifestyle athlete classes, athlete level 1, UA Swimmers, and 1 on 1 clients. He seeks to teach all he works with that through better movement, one can push beyond their comfort zone to discover their best selves. Follow Brian on social @the_beard_of_zeus1

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