How many times have you seen that athlete crushing group rides, winning a lot of small races, and then not be able to put it together when it really matters? It happens pretty often and most of the time it has to do with what they did in those weeks leading up to a big event. Tapering, the backing off of training stress to achieve a bigger peak, can bring some pretty impressive last-minute gains to an endurance athlete. Effective tapering will increase VO2max through hypervolemia and enhanced red blood cell production; increase efficiency through biomechanical and neural origins (Houmard, 1994); and increase aerobic endurance due to improved metabolic properties of the muscles. Combined this can give an endurance athlete up to a 8% increase in performance (Mujika. 1996). What exactly is a taper? A taper is a strategy to “maximize the decrease in accumulated fatigue while retaining or further enhancing physical fitness, thus leading to peak performance” (Bosquet. 2007).
One important aspect to realize with tapering is an effective taper does include an amount of detraining. This is pretty easy to see when utilizing the performance manager chart in training peaks or in WKO4. The lessening of training stress (acute training levels) allows the training stress balance to come up to positive numbers, as a result chronic training levels also drop. Chronic training level (a rolling average of an athlete’s training stress over a rolling ~42 day period) is roughly synonymous with fitness. Typically giving up a bit of CTL is worth the short-term advantage of being fresh for a race, however that may change depending on your goal event. As rough guideline, longer events benefit from being fitter and shorter events benefit from being fresher but you can fine tune this by doing some analysis on your own data (more on this below).
When it comes to any aspect of training it is good to see where the evidence lies and use those principles to define your individualized plan. Thankfully there have been quite a few studies done on tapering in endurance athletes that gives us some pretty solid guidelines. Before going into specific guidelines it is important to realize that there are four aspects of training we can manipulate: intensity, volume, frequency, and duration. Bosquet did a rather large scale meta-analysis including 27 total studies to determine what he describes as optimal guidelines for an effective taper.
Intensity: Reducing intensity has not shown any increase in performance and most of the time resulted in a drop in performance of athletes. However, an increase in intensity with a very low training volume did provide beneficial results.
Frequency: Manipulating frequency in a taper seems to be dependent on what your normal training frequency is before the taper. Several studies showed that if your workout frequency is 3 or less workouts a week than there isn’t any gains to be had from reducing training frequency (this athlete probably isn’t necessarily thinking about a taper either). If your training frequency is 4 or more workouts per week than a reduction in frequency may yield gains in a taper.
Volume: This is the biggest driver when it comes to taper and is the biggest variable when it comes to scientific studies. We have seen effective ranges of volume reduction between 10 – 85%. That is a huge range! Mujika (Mujika. 1996) conducted a study comparing a less than 20% reduction, a 41 – 60% reduction, and a greater than 60% reduction in training volume with the biggest gains coming from the 41 – 60% reduction in training volume. One important aspect in decreasing volume of an athlete is that of the psychological state of the athlete. Reducing volume 60% in a highly motivated endurance athlete often results in a lot of doubt, loss of confidence, and additional stress. Even though physiologically a 60% may be the best for an athlete, the psychological state also has to be assessed along this process and often a compromise has to be struck between the two.
Duration: The most common length of a taper is around 2 weeks, however it has been shown that a short 7 day taper was effective in improving 40km time trial performance in cyclists (Neary. 2003). Mujika also looked at taper length and found that an extended taper of 4 weeks to have additional gains over a 2 or 3 week taper, however a 5 and 6 week taper was less effective most likely due to the extended detraining effect. For most athletes, a 8 – 14 day taper makes the most sense.
The event type definitely changes all of these variables significantly as longer events typically require more aerobic fitness, so doing a longer taper with the resulting detraining may not be in an athletes best interest. Shorter events that typically require more anaerobic capacity normally benefit from a bit more freshness so a longer taper there may be more warranted. Individual characteristics of athletes will also change how to best approach an event and this is where reviewing an athlete’s data can be invaluable.
Utilizing a performance manager chart and correlating personal best performances to their training stress balance can give us a good idea of what state of fatigue an athlete needs to be at to produce the best results possible for their given event. We can even fine tune this more by determining specifically what aspect of fitness is required by an athlete’s goal event. For example, if we have a road cyclist who is tapering for nationals and the road course finishes on a 5 minute climb we can then go back and look at that athlete’s data to determine where their last 10 best 5 minutes efforts occurred and what corresponding TSB they had for those efforts. We then can plan their taper so they come in to the race at a similar TSB where we were seeing their best 5 minute efforts. For longer events like Ironman triathlons we don’t necessarily look at best 5 hour power or marathon time. Instead we focus in on where peak aerobic metabolic function or 1+ hour powers, and stamina occurs. Sometimes that occurs at different levels of fatigue and we need to find a balance between the two.
One last important point on tapering, it may not be in your best interest to taper for every event you are doing. If you are racing a full season with several events the detraining effect of effective tapering can limit overall development of an athlete. It is fairly common to have athletes shed some fatigue before events but this typically falls short of what I would classify as a taper. The goal here is often to add in a bit of freshness while limiting any detraining so we don’t compromise overall builds drastically.
Hopefully this gives you some insight into effective tapers for endurance athletes and how to better plan out your approach to goal events. As always, let us know if you have any questions in the comments!