Michael Phelps, Losing the 400IM, and His Taper

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Did Phelps lose because he trained too hard rather than not enough?

I was definitely surprised that Michael Phelps didn’t even medal yesterday in the 400IM. He gave a cryptic comment right after the race about not managing the lead-up to the Olympics well. He also spoke about feeling like “crap” in the morning.

Certainly he didn’t have the same speed, particularly in the last 100 meter free, that he demonstrated back in Olympic Trials. And the times showed. At Olympic Trials he swam a 4:07.89, nearly a second and a half faster than his Olympic time of 4:09.28.

Barring injury, what is the major reason why a swimmer would swim that much slower even a few weeks later? The taper.

Swimmers put in enormous amount of meters swimming, keeping the body exhausted, the muscles broken down, for what is not a natural activity. To reach peak performance, swimmers engage in a taper, slowly bringing down the amount of total yards they are swimming, and often increasing the rest intervals between high-effort swims.

Tapers are about timing, about dropping the training enough so the athlete is physically and mentally ready to give a maximal effort at a race. My guess is that Phelps trained even harder right after the trials, trying to position himself to win the 400 IM. Then, with a move to a different time zone and all the distractions of the Olympics (how many interviews…), the coaches didn’t quite catch his taper right.

Summer Sanders, a former Olympic swimmer and now TV commentator, agrees with me. In this clip on Yahoo Sports Video, she notes how she saw Michael swimming low in the water during morning practices, rather than up high and fast. The reason? Not quite at the end of his taper yet.

A lot of sports commentators right now are reading too much into his comments about not being prepared, blaming the less-than-stellar two years of training post 2008 on why he swam slower yesterday. Ironically, Phelps likely lost out on a medal not because he trained too little over the past four years, but because he trained too hard over the past few weeks.

Update: Not quite sure what to think after his 4×100 swim last night, where he put in a very fast performance. Looks like he had the second fastest leg of anyone (after Agnel, who upset Lochte at the end). So perhaps he didn’t do the training for swimming a 400, and focused more on shorter events. Or maybe it was just an off day. Or maybe his taper was off. Ah, sports talk…

Maybe jet lag and a bad taper?! Look at his official Olympics photo!

Update #2: First off, many congratulations to Phelps for becoming the most decorated Olympian of all times. That was great to watch. Touching too that the gold medal came on a relay, so it was a team effort. Second, his silver in the 200m butterfly made me appreciate all the more what he accomplished four years ago. Competition at the Olympic level is so close.

But I must say I was even more shocked by Phelps losing the 200 butterfly than I was by the 4th in the 400IM. This is his signature race. Great to see the South African swimmer jam into the wall, and how ecstatic his father was over that win. Olympic glory.

For me, the main reason Phelps got second in the race was his turns. He came in short on at least two turns, though I heard Rowdy Gaines mention three. He didn’t manage a technical detail of the race right, and it cost him at the end. That really was the margin of victory, a series of small mistakes. But he still got swam down in the last 50 meters of a grueling race, which does point to fitness level, age, and all the other things that affect athletes, elite or not.

In an interview with Bob Costas, Phelps also pointed to having “lazy finishes” in practice, which then showed up in his finish at the Olympics. I love the finish to the interview:

The decisions I made over the last four years were the decisions I made. And I’m okay with it. I’m just going to have some fun.

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