Matt Mackey: on Deloading, Tapering, and Peaking in Season

I swam in high school. Practices were grueling; 6 days a week with hours of technique work and long workouts with little rest. I thought about quitting more than once.

But there was always that light at the end of the tunnel to look forward to – because all of that work culminated each year with a shattering of PRs for me and my teammates, and a championship win for the team.

My coach taught me a lot about the value of hard work and was the first to pique my interest in exercise science; he’s one of the earliest mentors I had. One of the lessons he taught me was the value of a taper for realizing fitness gains.

What “Tapering” Means

About two weeks before the date of our championship meet, the churning storm that was our pool during practices began to subside, and the hours of intense practice gradually shortened.

We would go from a solid 2 hours of interval work, lactate tolerance relays, and anaerobic threshold work to, in the few days leading up to the final meet, having practice consist of:

1. Warm up

2. 3-10 Full-effort short sprints, plenty of rest between each

3. Cool down.

Total time: about 30 minutes

This is the crux of what it means to taper down – cut volume tremendously (we went from swimming over 2000 hard meters a practice to less than 500 total including warm-up and cool-down), but keep effort high. The idea is to allow the fatigue you’ve accumulated from continual training stress to resolve, and – because you’re still stimulating your body to make gains but the volume is lower, you should induce what’s called a supercompensatory response, enabling your body to exceed its previous bests. (Always remember that it is recovery from training, not the training itself, that enables progress).

Evidence suggests that the best results come from progressively reducing volume by at least half over the course of 2 weeks, while maintaining intensity (effort) and training frequency (don’t skip a practice!). Any longer with a reduced training load and you’ll begin to detrain and undo all the gains you’ve made.

So What Does Tapering Mean for Frisbee? – The Difference with Deloading

Of course, given how often we have tournaments in-season, it’s completely unrealistic to set aside two weeks before each – we’d never wind up getting any real training done if we were always cutting back!

The good news is that the guideline for tapering above applies primarily to endurance – swimming, running, and cycling were all tested on measures of endurance performance. Unlike swimming, ultimate expresses a lot of more strength-related qualities, like your on-field explosiveness, and we can make do with a much shorter timeframe to peak there; enter the deload.

What Does It Mean to Deload?

I’ll refer you to this article by Jim Smith for the basics (including a nice diagram of the law of supercompensation), but in short, deloading means reducing work – I prefer to cut volume (sets/reps) over intensity (weight), but there are benefits to either approach as well.  In much the same way that tapering helps you realize endurance gains, deloading allows for fuller expression of your strength and power gains.

What’s important is to shift focus from work to recovery – you want to leave the gym on deload days feeling more energized than when you came in. The extent of deloading you’ll need to fully “peak” varies depending on how hard you’ve been working, but can be anywhere from 2-4 workouts (or as little as half a week) – strength and especially power qualities detrain more quickly than endurance, as they are based more on neuromuscular rather than metabolic components, so it’s important not to cut back too early.

Putting it All Together

For the endurance side of ultimate, tapering for two weeks is really only of practical use as you approach end-season tournament play (with some variance depending on when your main goal is – if it’s to make regionals, for instance, tapering to peak for sectionals may be necessary – likewise if you’re looking to make nationals, training through sectionals and tapering for regionals may be more appropriate). While in-season, outside of scheduling workout days to avoid being sore and/or run-down on tournament weekend, there isn’t much evidence to show that it’s worth altering your training plan to accommodate tournaments.

For the strength/explosive component, a short deload can be useful before tournaments – depending on the tournament and your training, this can range anywhere from the last couple workouts to a full week or more preceding.

With each method, it’s important to recognize that training frequency must be maintained – it’s the maintenance of a consistent (but lessened) training stimulus that provokes the body to supercompensate. Taking time off completely is really only indicated in cases of prolonged overtraining, a serious condition which hopefully applies to none of you!

The Importance of Planning

One thing that hopefully becomes clear in all of this is the necessity of planning out your training. Deloading is easier to improvise, but a good taper really requires sitting down and working through how exactly you will cut volume – fewer repeats? Shorter distances? To some extent this depends on your personal preferences and on trial and error to find what works best, but having any plan at all is a big step toward realizing the fullest extent of your fitness gains.

Work hard, plan to recover well, and new levels of fitness will continue to open themselves up to you. Good luck and happy training!

Matt Mackey is a former Dartmouth player and writer of the very popular, always informative Ultimate Thoughts.

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