What is a taper?
In the context of sports, tapering is the practice of reducing exercise in the days just before an important competition. Tapering is common in many sports and for many athletes, a significant period of tapering is essential for optimal performance. The tapering period frequently lasts as much as a week or more.
In simplest terms, what you are trying to do when you taper is recover from all of your hard training, so that you are well rested and ready to put the training to the test. When you have trained and “peaked” properly, you should experience increased power, reduced lactic acid buildup and fatigue, increased blood volume, enhanced work capacity, increased fuel storage, and renewed interest in participating in your event (if at any point you were verging on overtraining). You should feel like you have plenty of “pop” or “spring” in your muscles, and you should also feel a bit antsy, as though you cannot wait to get going again. The most common mistake people make leading up to their event is to think that “more is better” and to train hard right up until the day before the day of the race or climb. As difficult as it is to remember, fitness actually improves with rest, and you want to be well rested to perform optimally. Equally, for fitness gains to take place, the body adapts over 3-6 weeks, so hard sessions 2 weeks before will have no performance benefits! My old swim coach used the analogy of training (and your body) being like money being put in the bank. By the time you come to your event – and your taper – it’s time to take out the interest.
Although there is now considerable agreement on the value of a taper, there is not a tremendous amount of information on what is actually happening to the body during this time. Investigations have focused on two broad categories, physiological and psychological. It is understandable that many initial scientific studies focused on physiological variables. After all it is inherently easier to measure glycogen in a muscle biopsy than it is to understand the inner workings of the human brain. Recently, more investigations into psychological processes have been done with interesting results and the promise of more for the future. In any event it is important to keep in mind that both physiological and psychological adaptations are important since neither alone can fully account for what is observed when athletes race. As explanations continue to develop, one need not wait to reap the benefits of a good taper. Enjoy!
Although a complete discussion is beyond the scope of this article, here are a few interesting highlights of scientific investigations into adaptations that occur during a taper. Although some changes are small the summation can have a strong effect on performance.
1) VO2 max, the best measure of aerobic performance, can increase during a taper. Some studies reported up to 5 – 6 % improvement.
2) Muscle glycogen has been shown to increase during a taper – provided the athlete is consuming a carbohydrate rich diet (~75% of caloric intake)
3) Improved economy of movement (the oxygen cost of exercise at a given submaximal exercise intensity) can also improve during a taper.
4) Improved mood and better sleep quality have been documented during a taper.
5) Rating of perceived exertion may decline during a taper. In other words athletes’ self-rated perception of effort indicated they felt less effort at a given workload (note: this is always a nice feeling).
How do I taper for an event?
For endurance athletes, “tapering” refers to a decrease in training volume (amount) leading up to competitions. In the past, most coaches had athletes reduce both the volume and intensity (effort) of training prior to competition, but all that changed when a group of researchers at McMaster University in Canada conducted a ground-breaking study on the affects of various tapering strategies. The results of this work, and more that followed, showed dramatic endurance benefits in runners who drastically cut their training volume but added high intensity interval training sessions in the week prior to competition.
Most tapering strategies today use this research as a foundation, but there are a variety of methods and schedules available for every athlete and every competition.
The length of your taper depends upon your current level of fitness and experience, but a good rule of thumb is the one-hour rule. This means that if your event will last an hour or less, use a one-week taper. If you event is going to last more than an hour, your taper may extend to a full two weeks prior to the event.
It’s important to pay attention to your body during the week before a competition. If you are fatigued, or feel any aches or twinges of pain, it’s best to stop your training and recover. It’s always better to stop your workouts for a week than to push through pain and suffer on race-day.
It seems that no matter which tapering strategy the coach and athlete decide on, there will almost certainly come a time close to the race when the athlete doubts the strategy. This is perfectly normal. The weird physical sensations that accompany the change in training that the taper brings, coupled with the stress of the situation make for some fertile ground for doubts to spring up. Without a smart strategy and a firm resolve, these doubts often breed silly decisions.
So, what constitutes a smart taper?
A smart taper is optimally timed to coincide with that very brief sweet spot where the athlete has the the best combination of the freshness that comes from “freshening” while still not losing too much of the fitness that comes from training. Timing this peak is a very delicate dance made even more fragile by the fact that the optimal combination will be different for every athlete.
The elements that combine to create the perfect taper recipe for a given athlete are:
Fitness – The greater the aerobic base of the athlete, the shorter the taper generally needs to be
Race type – Paradoxically, the shorter the event, the longer the taper
Gender/Body type – The bigger and more muscular the athlete, the longer the taper
Surprisingly, perhaps, the most common silly decision that I see in super-fit, highly competitive triathletes is ignoring the first rule above and tapering too often – there is no point in tapering for every event that you do throughout the season – assuming that you will race upwards of 4 events in a year. If you taper for every single event that you plan to race, then you never end up building on your fitness throughout the season. Pick your 2/3 A races for the year and taper properly for them. Your B races may have a slight drop off, but not the same as your A races. C category races are training events. Go and race them, but don’t expect PB’s or fantastic times, look for something more internal – technical, emotional or strategy based.
On the flipside of the coin, under-tapering occurs when athletes fail to taper long enough to exploit the full performance benefit of freshening. This is especially common in new athletes who are nervous about dropping fitness leading into the event. This attitude is especially damaging during late race week when it becomes important to drop training load below the athlete’s chronic training load to allow supercompensation of glycogen stores to occur. Put more simply, in the last 72 hours pre-race, you want to be making deposits into your body’s glycogen account, not withdrawals.
As you peak, decrease your overall volume. If you have been doing 3 hr rides and 4x 400 meters running on the track do 90 minutes in the saddle, and 2 or 3x300m intervals. You want to stay fresh and sharp but not worn down. Workouts should be short and sweet. They might burn but you should recover fast. By maintaining or even increasing your intensity, your body thinks that training is still on full blast and your body will continue to adapt full blast. But… you have decreased the volume and by the time it realizes that you have actually done less your body has over compensated and your flying. Further hone this adaptation with race specific workouts in a race specific environment and you will be more ready on race day than you ever imagined.
While this decreased training time will be nice you should still treat yourself well. Treat yourself like your still training hard. Get that recovery drink even if you feel you don’t need it. Get plenty of sleep and keep up on stretching, etc…
The other item you will need to keep busy is your brain. Don’t think too much. Go over the race plan, make sure the tires on the bike are in good shape and just go. You have done this in training so you can do it in the race. Remember there is not much you can do to get faster in the week or three before the big race but you can do everything to blow it. So stay the course. Take care. Eat the extra pasta. Skip the morning swim if your feeling tired. And don’t be afraid to light it up a few times. Show your stuff, whether in a race or a short hard work out with the training partners. You have been looking at your heart rate and power meter all season staying in “your zone”. Time to see how far you can push yourself!
Peaking for an event optimally remains an art form, trying out the suggestions above might afford you a significant leg up on your competition. It’s not always the fittest athlete who wins.