Training Tapering

Tapering

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Ed McNeely – Peak Centre for Human Performance

For many athletes a year of training comes down to one major race when strength, skill, speed, endurance and tactics all need to come together at the right time. The final preparation for competition is both an art and a science, requiring an understanding of the physiological changes that are occurring and the skills to manage the psychological and emotional state of an athlete as they near the culmination of a hard year of training.

 The Training Process

The objective of training is to induce physiological, psychological, technical and mechanical changes in an athlete so that performance improves. Training is often thought to follow a simple process based on Hans Selye’s general adaptation syndrome where a training session creates a stress that results in fatigue and subsequent decrease in performance. If sufficient time is allowed, this is followed by a recovery period and then adaptation. Performance improvements occur incrementally as this cycle is repeated session by session. While this is an attractive model it doe not account for the varying rates of recovery and adaptation experienced by different body systems and tissues.

 

The fitness fatigue model of training response suggests that for each training session there are both fitness and fatigue after effects. During stressful periods of training with inadequate recovery fatigue accumulates over time, masking the full extent of the underlying physiological and performance adaptations. When the training stress is removed or decreased, there is a delayed training effect where the body continues to adapt as fatigue dissipates, allowing the full fitness effect of the training period to be realized.

This phase of training is called a taper and has been defined as a period of progressively reduced training volume that usually lasts from seven to 21 days prior to the year’s major competition.

 Designing a Taper

Not every athlete will benefit from a taper. Novices, in technical endurance sports like kayak, canoe, rowing and swimming, who have limited training experience will not see much improvement from a taper. Novice athletes will probably benefit more from a continued higher volume of training leading into a race followed by 1-2 days off just prior to the race. This is because many novices haven’t mastered the technical skills of the sport to the point that they are going to be limited by their fitness. A higher volume of skill and tactical work leading into a race will probably pay bigger performance dividends than a taper.

Endurance athletes who are training less than four hours per week will not benefit much from a true taper. These athletes can take a day or two off immediately before a race and be sufficiently recovered to race at their best.

 

Choosing Races

Choosing your races for the year is one of the first steps in designing your training program. Tapers can be used before most competitions or important tests that are part of team selection make judicious use of tapers using one major taper, 1-2 moderate tapers and no more than 2-3 minor tapers per year. Tapering more frequently than this will decrease yearly training volume to the point that performance may be negatively affected.

If there are going to be more than six races per year, treat the extra races as hard training sessions. Focus on a specific technical, or tactical aspect of the race rather than just wins and losses. Learning about your ability in different parts of the race will help you refine your training program and let you create a better race plan for your major competition.

 Minor Taper

The minor taper is used prior to tests and less important races like club events that aren’t used as qualifiers for bigger events. The design of the minor taper depends on normal training volume. Athletes who are training 6-10 hours per week will take one day completely off before the test or race, those training 10-15 hours per week will use a three day taper, and those training more than 15 hours per week will use a five day taper. A typical minor taper looks like the following:

Taper

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

Day 4

Day 5

Day 6

1 Day

OFF

Race

3 Day

OFF

2 x 15 min at 5% faster than race pace,  20 minute easy steady state

3 x 10 min at 5% faster than race pace, 20 minute easy steady state

Race

5 Day

4 x 10 minutes at race pace

45-60 minute steady state

2 x 20 min at 3% faster than race pace, 20 minutes easy steady state

2 x 15 min at 5% faster than race pace,  20 minute easy steady state

3 x 10 min at 5% faster than race pace, 20 minute easy steady state

Race

 Moderate Taper

The moderate taper is used for secondary races, those races where a good performance is needed in order to qualify for an upcoming event. These races should be races where an athlete is confident of their ability to perform well even if they are not fully rested. Moderate tapers should be spread throughout the year with the final one coming 4-6 weeks before the start of the major taper. This final moderate taper is not only preparation for a race but it is a learning experience that will improve the major taper, providing information on how the athlete responds to a decreased training volume and increased intensity. Athletes who are training 6-10 hours per week will use 3-5 days for a moderate taper, those training 10-15 hours per week will use a 7-10 day taper, and those training more than 15 hours per week will use a 10-14 day taper. The design of the moderate taper will follow the recommendations below for the major taper.

Keep careful and detailed records of the training sessions, feelings of recovery, muscle soreness and athlete confidence so that the information can be used in the design of the year’s major taper.

 Major Taper

The major taper is used prior to the year’s major competition. Because of it’s duration the major taper can only be used once a year

 Duration

Since the training stimulus is greatly reduced during a taper, the duration of the taper can have an impact on the magnitude of performance improvements. Within 1-4 weeks of stopping training highly trained athletes start to show decreases in some aspects of performance possibly due to a “loss of feel” during training and competition

For those who are training more than four hours per week the major taper needs to be planned according to work volume. Based on our experience we have developed the table below to provide guidelines for the duration of a taper based on the number of hours per week of training.

 

Training Hours/Week

Major Taper

6-10

7 days

10-15

14 days

15+

21-30 days

 

Volume

A substantial decrease in training volume is one of the characteristics of a taper. In studies of distance runners, (Houmard et al., 1990, 1991) found that 800m and 1600m running times were improved following a decrease in training volume of 70% over a three-week period. Houmard (1994) found an increase in running economy and a 3% improvement in 5km run time following a seven-day 85% decrease in training volume. There is a relationship between the amount of volume decrease and performance improvements during a taper. If training volume is not sufficiently reduced there appears to be no improvement in performance.

During a taper training volume will decrease by 70%-90%. In other words if an athlete is normally training 10 hours per week and will be doing a 7 day taper they will only train 3 hours that week. Keep in mind that the decrease in volume should not be accomplished in one step; rather volume is decreased progressively throughout the taper.  Zarkadas et al. (1994) found an 11.8% improvement in 5km run times following a 10-day progressive taper but only a 3% improvement in performance using a step taper. Houmard et al. (1990) found no improvement in performance following a three-week step taper. Progressive tapers seem to have a greater impact on performance than step tapers. This is probably due to detraining effects that occur when the rapid volume decrease used in step tapering is maintained for an extended period of time. While a progressive taper is the obvious choice for the major competition of the year, a step taper may be better for minor and moderate tapers where the taper duration is less than 10 days.

If you are doing a longer taper you may want to consider the following progression

Table 3: Progressive taper changes in volume
Training Volume Taper Week 1 hours Taper Week 2 hours Taper Week 3 hours
6-10 Decrease by 70% —– —–
10-15 Decrease by 45% Decrease by 70%
15+ Decrease by 30% Decrease by 50 % Decrease by 70%

 

 Frequency

The reduction of training volume in a taper should not occur as the result of drastic changes in training frequency. The decrease in volume is accomplished by decreasing the duration of each workout. Researchers have found that reducing training volume (80 to 90%) through cutting frequency by 50 to 85% resulted in decreased swim power after only seven days of tapering. Studies in which tapering has resulted in improved performance have typically decreased frequency by 20 to 50%. The reasons why a reduction in frequency causes a decrease in performance are unclear, but may be related to decreased technical efficiency. As frequency of technical work is decreased there may be some loss in technique that ultimately affects performance.

Intensity

Intensity increase throughout the taper as the training volume decreases. A study that compared high intensity and low intensity tapers found that the physiological responses to the two tapers were similar but only the high intensity taper group showed an increase in performance. Steady state pieces are gradually replaced with higher intensity intervals and short sprints. By the final week almost all the training will be done at or above anaerobic threshold. A final week of a major taper may look something like this;

 

Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday
40 minutes easy steady state 4 x 5min  above AT, 10 minutes rest between 5 x 2 min at VO2 max, 30 minutes easy steady state OFF 4-6 x 250 m sprints with 10 minute easy between 4 x 2 min above  race pace, 5 minutes between RACE

 

The sprint work in the last two days is as much a psychological factor as it is a physiological factor. Sprints will give the athlete feelings of speed, power, and confidence that they can take with them into race day. This means it is important to have a good final training session that leaves the athletes energized not fatigued. Ideally these final training days are done on the race course so that the athlete has time to familiarize themselves with the course.

 Conclusion

A taper should be practiced at least once before the major competition of the year. It is not necessary to practice a full 21 day taper but the final week must be tried at least once, during a less important competition. This will provide the opportunity to adjust the taper to individual needs and experiment with different combinations of intervals and sprints during the final week.

References

  1. Houmard, J., J.P. Kirwan, M.G. Flynn, and J.B. Mitchell. Effects of reduced training on submaximal and maximal running responses. Int. J. Sports Med. 10: 30-33. 1989.
  2. 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.
  3. Houmard, J. Impact of reduced training on performance in endurance athletes. Sports Med. 12: 380-393. 1991

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