COLUMBIA — When the Hickman and Rock Bridge girl’s swim teams travel to St. Peters for the state championships beginning Friday at the Rec-Plex, coach John Hamilton will be hoping that the teams’ training regimen sligs his swimmers to success.
“It’s like a rubber band,” Hamilton said. “We’ve stretched them as far as they can go, then we rest them, and hope they snap beyond what their normal capabilities are There’s a week or a week and a half before they fall back to their normal states. We try to time that with a big meet.”
During the past week, the teams have engaged in a practice common throughout swimming known as tapering in an effort to prepare for the state meet.
“It’s basically an overload principle during the season, and then you back off,” Hamilton said. “There’s a brief period of time when you’re actually stronger.”
During the overload portion of the season, Hamilton’s athletes swam about 6,500-7,000 meters on an average day of practice, exceeding 8,000 a couple times. Hamilton said that by the time his swimmers reach the state meet, they’re “almost over-trained.”
“You start to get to a breaking point,” Hamilton said. “There’s fatigue, the times plateau, there are some minor injuries. But we start picking up on it, and we know when it’s time to start tapering.”
Once the teams begin tapering, practices continue with the same level of intensity but much less distance. During the week leading up to the last chance meet on Feb. 9, the teams nearly halved their practice yardage, and by Tuesday, the teams were swimming only 1,800 yards. Hamilton also cut out the team’s usual weight training.
Hamilton said there’s a biological explanation for the tapering process and why it works.
“There are biological phenomena going on, in the actin and myosin fibers of the muscles and in the filaments,” Hamilton said. “There’s an enzyme that starts to replenish itself a little better.”
Rock Bridge senior Corey Murphey said she can feel a difference swimming after she’s been tapering.
“You feel different in the water; you feel lighter,” she said. “When you’re tired, your muscles feel like lead bricks. After tapering, your arms don’t feel quite as heavy.”
Murphey dropped two seconds in the 100-yard butterfly at last year’s state meet, finishing 10th. As a point of comparison, about a second and a half separated the sixth and 16th place finishers in the event.
Murphey also said that even before the team officially began to taper Monday, she was feeling the effects of the extra rest.
“I’ve been swimming competitively for 14 and a half years, so it was a surprise swimming so fast last weekend,” Murphey said. “When you rest, it helps repair muscle fibers. The more you rest, the better you feel, and you swim faster.”
Rock Bridge junior Kate Hunt, a distance freestyler, also pointed out that tapering gives the team an opportunity to focus on things besides conditioning.
“You focus more on stroke technique,” she said. “You feel really bad in the water during tapering, so the most important thing is focusing on your stroke. Distance swimmers work more on your pace and splits.” Splits are the times for individual segments of a full race.
Rock Bridge senior Leah Hunter said that during a taper, sprinters focus on turnover rate, the speed at which the swimmers move their arms, and pop-out, a swimmer’s initial velocity when they hit the surface off of a dive or pushing off the wall.
For Hamilton, tapering is an inexact science. He said when to start and how quickly to decrease yardage both depend on the physical and mental makeup of each individual team. Although he has a general expectation of how much time each swimmer will drop, it’s still “a hard thing to put any kind of predictions on.”
But the five Hickman and 11 Rock Bridge state qualifiers trust that their coach is preparing them to swim their best at the biggest meet of the year.
“I don’t know what it is, but I always seem to drop a lot of time at state, and even last chance,” said Hunter, who dropped over a second in the 100 free at state last year. “You don’t feel like you’re going that much faster, but when you see the scoreboard, it’s kind of a shock.”