Tapering is a seemingly simple concept but so many athletes still get it wrong usually due to an insecurity in their fitness.
The two primary goals for a taper are 1) disappearance of cumulative fatigue, and 2) maintenance and sharpening of fitness. A successful taper requires a trust in the process and a reversal of thinking. Through training, athletes learn that consistency is a key to success and there is a fear of loss of fitness if their routine is disrupted. High training loads may be a prerequisite for peak performance, but the results will not be realized without a proper taper. Done right, a taper will boost performance to a significantly higher level than otherwise possible.
Keep in mind that different abilities have different training residuals. For example aerobic endurance has one of the longest training residuals of around 30 days, whereas maximum speed has a training residual of around 5 days (Issurin, 2008). The explanation is that most of the aerobic endurance adaptations are structural, such as mitochondrial density, capillary density, red blood cell volume and hemoglobin capacity. Anaerobic adaptations have a shorter training residual because most of the adaptations have to do with anaerobic enzymes and buffering capacity. Maximum speed has the shortest training residual because it depends on neuromuscular interactions and motor control. This partially explains why volume is dramatically reduced but intensity and frequency remained mostly unchanged.
There are primarily four different tapering strategies:
1. Step Taper: This is probably the most common and a typical example would be a two-week taper with a 33% reduction in training volume and intensity the first week, followed by an additional 33% reduction in training volume the second week. So an athlete training 15 hours per week, would drop to 10 hours and then to 5 hours the week before a big competition. A step taper could also be a 3 week taper with maybe a 20-25% reduction in training each week.
2. Linear taper: This is simply a linear, progressive reduction in training load so you would see a gradual reduction in both volume and intensity.
3. Exponential, slow decay taper. With this strategy, there is a greater reduction in training load at the beginning of the taper and then training load almost levels off at around 40-50%.
4. Exponential, fast decay taper. Compared to the slow decay taper, there is an even greater reduction in training at the beginning of the taper and training load is reduced to 20-30% of normal. Although tapering is individual, research indicates this to be the most effective tapering strategy.
All tapering strategies can be effective, but there is some research to suggest there may be an ideal tapering strategy. Bosquet (2007) conducted a meta-analysis on the effects of taper on performance and found the most effective tapering strategy to be a 2 week exponential, fast-decay taper in which training volume is reduced by 41-60% without altering training intensity or frequency. The primary goal of a taper is the disappearance of fatigue without the negative effects of detraining. Since volume is drastically reduced, it may also be possible to enhance certain fitness parameters with short residual training effects with high intensity interval and repetition training performed in a rested state with adequate recovery (sharpening).
Tapering is individual
A taper implies that there is a training load that requires tapering from. For a weekend-warrior type athlete maybe training 4-5 hours per week a taper is probably not necessary. At the other end of the spectrum, an ultra long distance triathlete at 25+ hours of training per week may benefit from an even longer taper of 3 or even 4 weeks. For long distance athletes such as marathon runners and ultra-distance athletes, I often place the longest run 4 or even 5 weeks before the race. For most endurance athletes a one to two week taper is ideal. Here are more guidelines to help you develop the best tapering strategy for you:
1. The higher the training load, the longer the taper and the greater the reduction in training volume. Conversely, the lower the training load, the less you need to reduce your training
2. A longer taper should decay slower than a shorter taper. If you have a long three week taper, then it can be more linear with a gradual dissipation of fatigue. If you are planning just a one-week taper, then shut it down quickly to a lower training load.
3. Decrease volume first, but mostly maintain frequency and some intensity.
4. Focus on shorter intervals during a taper with longer recovery. Intervals can be slightly higher than race intensity, but only if you are used to this type of training. Race week I usually just have one key session on a Tuesday, which is shorter than normal, and I don’t go all out.
5. Avoid the temptation to over-cook your final high intensity workouts since you are feeling fresh and can likely swim, bike, or run personal bests during the final week. Leave the Strava records alone. Also consider the demands of your race and it may be unnecessary to perform high intensity repetition work.
6. Have confidence in the process and expect some feelings of guilt. Just because your training load is low, doesn’t mean you didn’t earn your next meal. Back off your type A personality for just a short time.
7. Don’t overcompensate by restricting your diet. Muscle and liver glycogen (carbohydrate) stores need to be at a maximum and hydration optimal. Since glycogen is stored with water, expect a small amount of weight gain–this is a good thing. Although you might feel like it, you won’t get fat in your final week of tapering.
8. Decreasing fatigue is the most important part of a taper, so any last-ditch effort to boost your fitness will likely backfire. When in doubt, leave it out.
The biggest pitfall I see is the sabotage, which usually occurs about a week out from the race. Again, it is the lack of confidence and the unnecessary urge to complete one final confidence-building workout. Save it for the race. For XTERRA racing, the other challenge is deciding how much pre-riding is necessary. Riding 2 hours at moderate to somewhat high intensity one or two days before the race is a bad idea. Consider riding just a portion of the course or not at all. Another strategy is to be very well rested before you arrive so a pre-ride of the course will be easier to recover from. I often place a complete day off 2 or 3 days out from the race, usually coinciding with travel.
The final piece to get you feeling fresh on race day is a short potentiation workout, often referred to as “openers”. If you are well rested, but it has been a while since any high intensity training, it may be beneficial to potentiate the muscles with a few short intervals on the bike the day before the race. A typical workout would be 3-4 reps of 1-2 minutes at goal race intensity in the middle of a 30 to 40 minute ride. Some suggest that a potentiation workout should be reserved for elite athletes, but if you have trouble with heavy legs on race day, then it would be worth trying first before a low priority race. For it to be effective, you need to be rested and don’t go all out. If you have some fatigue from a pre-ride the previous day, then skip the potentiation reps.
“Rest is good after the work is done” –Danish proverb
Bosquet, L., Montpetit, J., Arvisais, D., & Mujika, I. (2007). Effects of tapering on performance: A meta-analysis. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 39(8), 1358-1367.
Issurin, V. (2008). Block periodization versus traditional training theory: A review. Journal of Sports Medicine & Physical Fitness, 48(1), 65-75.
Shepley, B, MacDougall, JD, Cipriano, N, Sutton JR, Tarnopolsky, MA, Coates, G (1992). Physiological effects of tapering in highly trained athletes. Journal of Applied Physiology, 72(2), 706-711.