This past weekend was one of the greatest events of the year for endurance athletes. For most of us that work regular 40+ hour a week jobs, find time for our families, as well as handle the grooming time of handlebar mustaches, the extra evening daylight from “springing” our clocks forward is a marking of passage from spinning on trainers or treadmills to taking advantage of those extra hours of light at the end of the day. Basically, it is like Christmas for endurance athletes.
The changing of the clocks also signals the approach of key events and the need to maximize performance for a few key goal events. So how do you take advantage of all that hard work you put in? That is where the art of the taper becomes key. A properly designed taper is a period of time before an event where you reduce training volume while maintaining intensity, to reduce fatigue. It is important to remember that when reducing training load to gain freshness you can actually lose some fitness. This is OK in the short term because in that week before a major event a rested athlete is much more important than a few extra hard workouts. You can’t cram fitness like college algebra!
Most tapers will vary from 7 – 14 days and will use a step pattern to reduce training load to leave the athlete very rested come race day. I tend to use a shorter taper when athletes are racing a series or just trying to maintain a high level of fitness through out the year, and a longer taper when we are only looking at doing a few key events and have time between them to rebuild fitness. The length of the taper should also take into account your current base fitness (better the fitness the longer the taper) and the event. Generally speaking, the shorter the event the longer the taper. If you are a self-coached athlete I would encourage you to spend some time looking through your past training and seeing where you had great workouts or races and what your training looked like in the week or two prior. Keep in mind that the taper will vary to the type of event so assess the demands of your event and find similar workouts or races to use to compare levels of freshness.
It is possible that some athletes will feel lethargic and sluggish after doing a taper. This happens primarily with high volume trained athletes (i.e. Professional cyclists and long distance triathletes) that have a much larger percentage of slow twitch muscle fibers. In basic terms, these athletes have a slightly altered neurological state (i.e. autonomic tone) due to the high volume and reducing the volume can start to cause a shift in the neurological system. The other issue in high volume athletes is that the reduced training volume causes a reduction in blood volume of 5 – 12% in a very short period of time that can cause a number of negative performance effects and ultimately a reduction of VO2 (Coyle, 1986; Houmard, 1992) . Not a good thing when going into a major goal. Instead of tossing out the taper altogether it is better to approach it a little differently with a 2 stage taper lasting 7 – 14 days. The first phase is the typical reduction in volume while maintaining intensity (the foundation of a good taper), then the second phase is a moderate increase of training load leading into the event. This results in most of the benefits of a traditional taper without the downsides some athletes experience over a longer taper.
What works best for you?