Tapering is the art / science of trying to peak for a particular event. This can be a major taper, where you try to gain maximum performance for a major race (usually once or twice a year) There are also minor tapers, where you try a shorter taper for races of medium importance throughout the year.
The basic principle of tapering is that there are two main aspects of training:
- Stress – where you do the training and stress the muscles and body. This leaves fatigue and possible muscle damage, but the stress causes the body to adapt to higher levels of fitness. Without this stress, the body never tries to adapt to greater fitness.
- Recovery – where you rest and give time for muscles to recover and adapt to higher levels of fitness.
The idea of a taper is to gain the optimal amount of fitness, plus freshness. If you train too hard, you will enter the final competition too fatigued and unrecovered. If you rest too much, then you start to lose the fitness gains. The peak taper is to get best combination of fitness, plus freshness.
Generally tapering involves reducing the volume of training, but maintaining a similar number of sessions of the same high intensity. This reduction in training volume can be anything between 5-21 days.
Some people racing every week may do a mini weekly taper of reducing training towards the end of the week. But, I wouldn’t really call this a proper taper.
Out of interest, in 1954 Roger Banister, took 6 days off before his successful attempt to be first man to run the mile under 4 minutes (3 min 59.4 sec) (link)
Benefits of Tapers
Different studies, suggest that a taper which reduces fatigue from an endurance athlete can boost performance by between 3-11%.
- VO2 max capacity is largely unaffected by taper.
- Hemoglobin blood values have been shown to increase by up to 14%
- Hematocrit values have been shown to increase by up to 2.6% (Correspondingly at the end of a long tour, blood values are expected to fall. Hence athletes which show rising Hemotcrit levels at the end of a three week tour, is a strong indication of blood doping)
- One of the biggest increases in capacity after a taper is in sport specific muscles. Increases in swimming-specific power, of 16–25% have been reported in both men and women (9, 53)
How to develop a taper
A taper will depend on several factors. Firstly, it depends on how much you are training. If you are training less than four hours per week, a taper is unlikely to have any benefit, because at the level of training, fatigue is unlikely to be an issue. The greater the training volume, the greater the accumulated fatigue and the greater potential benefit of a taper.
One suggested rule of thumb:
- 6-10 hours training – major taper – 7 days
- 10-15 hours training – 14 days
- 15+ hours – 21-30 days
How long to taper?
Firstly, it depends on the type of event. Track sprint cyclists are generally likely to benefit from a longer taper than endurance athletes.
Secondly, it depends on the level of fatigue that an athlete feels. Someone who feels fatigued after a long racing season, may benefit from long taper. But, an athlete who is and feels relatively fresh, may see a greater decline in fitness from a long taper.
A study by Houmard et al. (17, 18) found that 800-m and 1600-m running times were improved following a decrease in training volume of 70% over a 3-week period.
How much to taper
- The general principle of tapering is to keep a similar number of training sessions, but reduce the time of these sessions.
- For example, if you have 3 hour endurance sessions, these can be cut back to 2 hour or 1 hour.
- In the peak load training period 3-4 weeks before a major event, you may be doing 9*2 minute intervals. A taper, will keep the same intensity of intervals, but reduce the number to say 5*2 minute intervals and 3*2 intervals.
- When tapering, the reduction in volume is not linear. You start off with small reductions in volume, the biggest reduction is closest to the event.
Intensity of tapers
One study by Houmard and Johns (19) suggested training schedules using intensities of less than 70% VO2 max, decrease performance, whereas tapers that use intensity of greater than 90% of VO2 max improve performance.
Some coaches suggest that in the taper period, the intensity can be actually increased. Also, sessions at race pace can benefit both physically but also psychologically (e.g. practise at pacing for scheduled event)
Tips on taper
Form = fitness + freshness. Rest and recovery becomes particularly important in the weeks leading up to a major event.
The other side of tapering is that you also need good training blocks where you don’t optimise form because you are stressing the body. This means you can’t peak for every event. In my experience it can be hard to ignore a race and keep a good training block. The temptation to taper for every race has to be ignored. ALso, before you begin a taper period, it is often advised to increase training load to get the optimal training stress before the taper period.
Tapering is quite individual, depending on the athlete’s background and discipline. Just because track sprinters have quite a big taper for 2 weeks before event, doesn’t necessarily mean that is what is best for you.
It is important to consider the psychological factors. In the week leading up to the event, it is important to build up confidence. This can be gained from riding the course, having a good training sessions which gives buzz of training, without going overboard and leaving you fatigued.
The day before an event it is best to have a short session to warm up for the next day. This should involves some near race pace intervals.
I was going to write an article on tapering last year. But, I was hesitant as I didn’t necessarily have the best track record when it came to actually doing it. The hill climb season revolves around the national championship in the last week of October. Peaking for the last week in October is not easy, especially if you’ve been racing all year.
I remember several years ago reading an article in Cycling Weekly about the tapering of British track sprinters in lead up to a major championship. Their taper involved several days off. From what I can remember, it was something like this:
- Sun – short hard session
- Mon – day off
- Tues – day off
- Wed – short hard session
- Thurs – day off
- Fri – day off
- Sat – warm up
- Sun – Big race
That’s a lot of days off, but not something I like doing.
Typically, I’ve been in great form during September and October, but not really seen a big performance gain from tapering for national championships. In 2013, Gordon Wright advised tapering later than usual. I didn’t really start to taper hard until a week before the event. Even in the last week, I was keeping high intensity.
This later taper than usual was based on the fact, I didn’t really feel tired, the event was a longer endurance event and a shorter taper may be helpful in maintaining peak performance.
70% is quite a big drop in volume. I was closer to 50-60% drop in volume.
In the hill climb season, my mileage drops quite significantly in October. During the summer, I might be averaging 1,000 miles a month. In September this drops to about 800-900 miles. In October, this drops to about 400-500 miles. In the last week, I might do 60-70 miles only. I always find after hill climb season ends, I feel like going on my bike and getting some miles in.
Tapering at other times in the year.
Apart from the hill climb championship, I don’t really put too much focus on tapering. I generally maintain a fairly high level of training throughout the year. But, I pay some attention to the monthly cycle of having at least one week relatively easy. I often don’t plan this week, but work commitments or injury choose the week for me. For big races, I will be more careful about what I do in the week leading up to the race. I find just a few easy days towards the end of the week makes me more rested. But, it’s not a very scientific taper.
A useful publication in writing this article was
Tapering for Endurance Athletes
Ed McNeely, MS,David Sandler, MS,CSCS
National Strength and Conditioning Association
Volume 29, Number 5, pages 18–24
(9) (COSTILL, D.L., D.S. KING, R. THOMAS, AND M. HARGREAVES. Effects of reduced training on muscular power in swimmers. Phys. Sports Med. 30:94–101. 1985. 44, 53).
(17) HOUMARD, J. Impact of reduced training on performance in endurance athletes. Sports Med. 12:380–393. 1991.
(18) HOUMARD, J., D. COSTILL, J.B. MITCHELL, S.H. PARK, R.C. HICKNER, AND J.N. ROEMMICH. Reduced training maintains performance in distance runners. Int. J. Sports Med. 11:46–52. 1990.
- Tapering at Australian sport
(19) HOUMARD, J., AND R. JOHNS. Effects of taper on swim performance: Practical implications. Sports Med. 17:224– 232. 1994.
(53) TRAPPE, S., D. COSTILL, AND R. THOMAS. Effect of swim taper on whole muscle and single fiber contractile properties. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc. 32:48–56. 2000.