Dan Pfaff: Tapering for the Big Meet
Today marks 10 days before the 100 meters opening round at the London Olympics. I wrote about Ben Johnson’s 10 Day Taper Before a Major Competition as well as 9 Mistakes Sprinters Make Before the Championship Meet.
Here is a great interview by Tom Crick with Dan Pfaff from the September 6, 2008 edition of Athletics Weekly.
Tom is now head of uCoach at UK Athletics.
Below is the portion on competition preparation and tapering for the big meet. For the full unabridged interview, visit his old website at http://www.down-right.co.uk. [published with permission]
Dan Pfaff on Tapering for the Big Meet
Q: The Olympics will be starting shortly, how do you go about tapering an athlete for a major competition?
Dan Pfaff: “Tapering” is a very ambiguous term. I know how to get an athlete ready to compete at an incredibly high level for 4-6 weeks but I wouldn’t call it classical tapering. During our “taper period”, we do quite a bit of work and we probably work a little harder and at a little higher intensity than a lot of people might but our athletes are conditioned and they need that amount of work to maintain the various strengths they have already developed.
If I had to define our taper I would say that the volume and intensity stay fairly similar but the density decreases. This is because volumetrically with some things you are trapped as you don’t get any learning effect unless you do enough work for the athlete to develop timing, awareness or positive chemistry. Also, when it comes to practicing the event the attempts need to be pretty high intensity for you to feel those things. So the nature of what you are doing has to stay the same (as in competition). Therefore, the only other variable you can alter is the training density – how often you work on a quality in any given time frame.
Another thing that is often overlooked is that as you introduce more rest some entities will be climbing while others are declining or stabilizing at best. I think it is a myth that all systems are at a really high level when great performances happen. Going back to the time when Obadele Thompson had a nerve entrapment in his foot shortly before setting a PB in the 200m, he only did bike workouts for three weeks prior to that! So was his timing and his technique optimal going into that meet? How could they be? He hadn’t been on the ground in three weeks! But his chemistry was probably super optimal because of what we had been doing on the bike, the therapy was spot on and his general strength was really high because he didn’t have anything else to do since he couldn’t run. So a lot of those things were generally higher than what we would classically like before we send someone into a meet. So it really got me thinking what dose of technique is really needed for someone to stay on top of it once you have already learned a skill? Did the cyclic motion of the bike keep his technical timing going? We don’t have the technology to answer that but something did!
Q: Ideally what should an athlete be doing six weeks before the Olympics?
Dan Pfaff: Six weeks before a major games the work is done. You had better be stabilizing and actualizing at that point because if you haven’t got the training done by now then you simply won’t be ready in time! The stress levels are so high and the demands are so great that all you can do is polish rather than improve.
In the run up to the games you have to decide how you will freshen the athlete up while keeping control over the psychology. For example, with some people if you start to taper and introduce more rest six weeks out they feel like they are detraining even if they are not, so you need to deal with that. The perception of the athlete needs to be managed because they must be confident going into big meets. Those athletes that feel guilty when they don’t do a large amount of training are the ones where you will keep a few more things in to calm their nerves.
So how long can an athlete hold their best form?
Dan Pfaff: I think for power speed people you can be in very good competitive shape for maybe twelve weeks if you have done your homework. Within this time period there will then be a second window of around 3-6 weeks where you can really achieve your best performances.
That’s a very long time, so you think it is possible for an athlete to be in good shape for most of the competitive season?
Dan Pfaff: The way IAAF season is set up, athletes have to go out and drop some times in March and May to get on the list and get invited to meets. Then they have their national champs in June or July so they have to perform well there and finally they have to come to Europe and be on the circuit from July to September and keep doing it year on year or they won’t get paid! So we have already proven that people can compete at a very high level for at least twelve weeks and the whole professional athletics circuit has been going on long enough now for coaches to figure out how to do this. If you are careful with how you choose meetings you can perform well when it counts almost the entire season, although some athletes are certainly more durable than others.
So do you have any tips?
Dan Pfaff: In my experience with 100m runners if they compete regularly for 2-3 weeks then they will need 10-14 days of down time to get away from racing and let their bodies recover. We have a rule in my squad; if you PB you come home because it takes about ten days for the body to adjust to that stimulus. With power speed athletes when they hit a PB effort everything gets screwed up for 7-10 days and it isn’t safe to keep competing. You can do some training but you just need to be careful.
[JIMSON’S NOTE: I wrote about this when Tyson Gay pulled his hamstring after his 9.68 PB at the 2008 USA Olympic Trials. He should not have run the 200m the next day. Click here to read Rest and Taper After a Maximal Performance – Thoughts on Tyson Gay from 2009]
Like when Suzy Powell set the US record in the Discus last year she had a follow up meet and still threw at a real good level living off that high but that night after that meet she got sick as a dog and the next ten days she couldn’t train at all. You see the problem when athletes peak is that they are doing things at a higher intensity or if something important is coming up, like a major games, then their arousal is up, their attention is up and the detail is up so they burn energy faster than normal.
Classic problems that we see in first year athletes include the issue that they hydrate at a normal rate during training but they will go to a meet and hydrate like crazy because they are nervous drinkers and suddenly the electrolytic environments are dilute and so they may get a muscle cramp or tear because they are OVER hydrated! I see a lot of times kids who usually don’t do static stretching before workouts, or they usually do it at night, suddenly start stretching at big competitions. They are doing stretches you’ve never seen before and doing them a lot deeper than normal, which is dangerous because they are not adapted to that kind of routine.
So when an athlete gets ready for that kind of event you need to monitor all this kind of stuff. An interview at a preseason meet may not cost them anything but an interview before the Olympic final might just drain them, especially if they have to get in a car and drive to the interview. That single interview could provide enormous amounts of stress and lower the athletes’ performance level, something which you obviously want to avoid just before the most important race of your life. So every entity needs to be looked at and you need to realize that going into a major games all systems are through the roof. You need to plan and prepare for that
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