Tapering for Peak Performance
Science has shown that tapering before an event can improve performance. Indeed, studies on swimmers and 5K runners, who can do full-distance race simulations before the taper phase, have shown improvements from tapering between 0.5 percent and 6 percent—that is between 1.5 and 14 minutes in a four-hour race!
While most athletes know the benefits of a taper, many are at a loss in terms of how to actually do it right.
In general, the response to a taper is very individual and what works for one person may not work for another, nor can you be certain that what worked for you at one point in your life will work for you again. But if you gain a better understanding of the taper process and the adaptations that occur in your body during this process, you will hopefully have the tools to tailor your taper to your body and make the most of the fitness you have worked so hard to achieve.
Fitness can be seen as the result of all the positive adaptations that come from training, such as increases in enzyme activity and heart function, and an ability to stock more fuel. Fatigue, on the other hand, results in impaired muscle function, low energy and other hindrances to peak performance. During your buildup in your training, fitness and fatigue accumulate in response to the load of your training. When you train with a high load, fatigue will often disguise your actual fitness state, as its effects spike faster than the fitness adaptations, which in turn last longer—and huge fitness with minimal fatigue equals peak performance.
According to Iñigo Mujika, author of Tapering and Peaking for Optimal Performance and coach to elite triathlete Eneko Llanos, the aim of a taper should be to hit the window where fatigue is low but fitness is still high, and with the right amount of work, you can maintain your peak level of fitness for a long time. But if you simply rest during your taper, your window for peak performance will be very short. Instead of completely resting, plan training sessions that gradually reduce the training load, allowing you to maintain fitness without spiking fatigue too much. Because high-volume training seems to cause more fatigue than intense training and has less of an effect on your ability to maintain your fitness, the best way to taper is to reduce your volume while maintaining—or in some cases even increasing—intensity in your sessions.
Types of Tapers
There are many methods of gradually reducing your training volume, according to Mujika. A linear taper is where the training load is reduced linearly throughout the duration of the taper. For example, if your peak week is 20 hours and your taper lasts three weeks, a linear taper would be 16 hours, 12 hours and 8 hours (a reduction of four hours each week). Tapers can also be exponential, where your training load is dropped steeply at the start of the taper before reaching a plateau in the final week. For example, you might train 14, 10 and 8 hours (a reduction of 6, 4 and then 2 hours) to achieve an exponential taper. Tapers can also be done in a single step, reducing training from 20 hours to, say, 10 hours in the first week of a three-week taper. While evidence suggests that all of these models provide a taper effect, the linear and exponential tapers are the most effective, according to Mujika.
Athletes who do long-distance races may benefit from a tapering model that consists of a peak training cycle, a period of active rest and then a short training module in the final stages of the taper. I have used this approach with success on several occasions both on myself and with some of the athletes I coach.
I believe the longer races require a momentum or a rhythm in the body—a state where you feel like you can just go on and on until the sun sets. If I only did shorter sessions for the few weeks leading into a race, I often felt super fresh but lost my momentum after hour three or four in the race. To combat this, I implemented a big rest phase to reduce fatigue several weeks before a big race and then did a series of more normal training sessions in the weeks leading up to the race. This allowed me to get my body into the zone again without accumulating massive amounts of fatigue. In 2007, when I placed third at the Ironman World Championship, I prepared for the race with two weeks of close to 40 hours of training as an overload, then I did an “easy” week of 20 hours, a moderate week of 23 hours, and then while in Kona I did 30 hours the week prior to race week, before taking the final five days easy. While I did not feel the best early on in the race, once I got past the 50-mile marker on the bike I was flying and was able to have a very strong second half of the race.
If you decide to try out this type of taper, it’s important that you make sure you are fresh before starting the mini block leading in to the race. If you are still tired from having overreached during your peak training weeks you should progress with a standard linear or exponential taper to ensure freshness on race day.
While reducing your volume to about 50 percent of your average weekly hours during the taper will give you the most bang for your buck, you must be sure to maintain or even increase your intensity slightly during this taper period. But this doesn’t mean you should go testing your fitness by busting out best-ever time trials or mile repeats. Indeed, the great Simon Whitfield—an Olympic gold and silver medalist in triathlon—often says that you should never go “searching for confidence” during your taper. In the weeks before he won silver at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, his coach at the time, Joel Filliol, wouldn’t allow him to look at his watch whenever he did intense workouts.
In general you should never test yourself at any time during the last three to four weeks leading up to your race. Instead, trust your fitness and do manageable intensive sessions to maintain it. The one mantra I use for intense sessions during the taper is “feel good,” which can be achieved by keeping intensive segments slightly shorter than usual and the rest between sets longer. If your usual intensive set while running is 5 x 1 mile on a two-minute rest interval, reduce it to three-quarter miles and later only half miles, and bump up the rest to three or four minutes of easy jogging. This will keep the zap in your legs while allowing you to freshen up.