Toolbox: Optimal Tapering Strategies
Surely you’ve heard riders comment that they are “tapering” their training for an upcoming marquee event. Typically it takes some form of the following “yea, I would have gone harder today but I’m tapering for Tuesday night worlds/Saturdays group ride/Cascade Classic, etc.” The reality is that riding easy for a couple of days before a big event isn’t really a taper; it’s more of a small rest in the hope of a good performance.
By Matt McNamara
What and Why Tapering Works
A true taper is frequently defined as “A progressive, nonlinear, reduction of training load during a variable period of time, in an attempt to reduce the physiological and psychological stress of daily training, and to enhance the physiological adaptations to optimize performance*.” Wow, sounds both simple and complex!
To better understand the taper let’s first look at some of the goals of a taper. We want to”reduce the physiological stress” of training. This stress can be seen in several ways:
1. Negative Influences (NI) – those factors which contribute to accumulated fatigue and decreased performance. These are seen via markers like the ratio of testosterone to cortisone (TT:C) , or the amount of creatine kinase (CK) present pre- and post-taper. It can also include such psychological factors as global mood disturbance, perception of fatigue, quality of sleep and those listed below.
2. Positive Influences (PI) – factors which indicate the positive effects of a taper. This includes things like increased red cell volume, a decrease in CK, decreased perception of effort, increased vigor, quality of sleep and simply feeling “fresh.”
Further, the taper can be broken into three categories for consideration and adjustment
1. Training Volume – the total amount of training undertaken. When discussing a reduction of training volume it is assumed that using 100% of pre-taper training volume is the baseline.
2. Training Frequency – How often the athlete is training. Again, the pre-taper training frequency can be used as a baseline.
3. Training Intensity – intensity refers to how hard the athlete is working. Typically a baseline relative to Lactate Threshold or VO2max is used as the baseline.
Recommended Training Adjustments
The first and most important consideration when considering construction of an effective taper is to remember that, as with every aspect of coaching, EVERY ATHLETE IS DIFFERENT! What works for your buddy may not work for you. Therefore, you must go from your own past history and experiment and adapt accordingly.
Volume Adjustment – Research has repeatedly shown that a reduction in training volume of between 40-60% is the most effective method. Reductions that are closer to 60% have netted the best average gain in performance. The nature of that reduction can be either a step or a curvilinear reduction. A Step-Taper is an immediate reduction in training volume to a low level (eg 40%) and then sustaining that training volume throughout the taper period. A curvilinear taper is one that reduces training volume more dramatically over the first part of the taper and less towards the end. Within the curvilinear model there can be either a fast or a slow decay in volume, depending on the event and the athlete.
To go a bit farther in the volume reduction discussion, let’s consider the combined elements of previous training and over-volume training prior to the taper.
Often the coach and athlete will create an over-volume training program in the last week(s) before the taper is set to begin. The goal of the over-volume training is to stress the system by over-reaching, nearly to the breaking point, and then recovering. It is often said that the line between over-reaching, which is a recoverable state in the short term, and over-training, which requires a much longer recovery cycle (like 4-6 months!) is a very fine one. When done appropriately this stress-recovery cycle creates a meaningful training effect known as ‘super-compensation.” Simply put your body super-compensates for the stress imposed thereby increasing your fitness. An ‘overload’ block could be as high as a 20% increase in training for a period of up to four weeks. Take note that the amount of overload, the duration, and the impact will vary greatly from athlete to athlete. If you are a category 4 road racer it is probably unwise to bump your training load by 20% for 4-weeks! Two weeks might be a better starting point. Again, the line between over-reaching and over-training is narrow and hard to master so don’t blow it the first time you try it.
Of note on the overload/taper strategy is the increase in taper duration for those who’ve sufficiently and appropriately overloaded. It has been indicated that with overload training the optimal taper period moves from, roughly, 2 to 4 weeks long. Within this ideal there is great variability for each athlete. Significant improvements have also been seen for athletes who increase the quality (intensity/volume) of their training during the last week(s) of the taper. This improvement is fairly slight however, so a good baseline is to follow your standard taper strategy with modifications introduced as you learn more about your body and its needs.
Frequency Adjustment – The reduction in training volume is not necessarily reflected in a reduction in training frequency (you don’t get more days ‘off’). Rather the frequency of training should remain fairly steady state during the taper. If you’ve been training 6 days a week you will likely still train six days a week, perhaps 5. Frequency reductions of up to 20% HAVE proven effective for ELITE level athletes, but most amateur athletes do not require such a reduction to see the benefits of a taper. In fact the maintenance of training frequency is well correlated with maintenance of training effect, especially when coupled with modifications in training intensity. Remember that ELITE training volume is dramatically higher than amateur to begin with so cutting 20% off a 25 hour week is reasonable. If you’re only training 10 hours a week you will probably not make up much ground by cutting to 8 hours a week (that’s like 20min a ride on a 6 day cycle). So here is the caveat – training adaptations in moderately trained athletes CAN be maintained with as much as a 50% reduction in frequency. This means that if you are relatively new to structured training and unused to the demands of high intensity, high frequency training you WILL be able to maintain the training effect with a substantial reduction in frequency. The rest/recovery allowed by reduced training frequency gives your body that much more capacity to replicate the high intensity efforts needed to maintain the training effect.
Intensity Adjustment – The final, yet arguably most important, adjustment relates to training intensity. I say ‘arguably most important’ because the purpose of a taper is to improve the physiological factors of performance, which inevitably involves ones ability to produce and sustain high intensity efforts, otherwise it’d be chess! While volume drops precipitously, intensity does not. In fact it has been shown that the maintenance of high intensity training (HIT) ALWAYS has a positive effect (0.0001% statistical significance!!). So the question becomes how much training intensity to retain?
Most tapers are built at the end of a substantive Build/Peak cycle and the training values you used during those last few weeks of work should form the baseline against which you design your taper. Figure that your last week of Build/regular training is your 100% mark for volume, frequency, and intensity. Remember the purpose of the taper is to “minimize accumulated fatigue and enhance training adaptations*.” If you reduce the volume of intensity too much you run the risk of detraining. Given that most argue that maintenance of training volume should remain very close to the levels in the final build period. That is to say that if you’ve been doing 30% high intensity training on a 10 hour week (3 hours) you would still look to do 3 hours of intensity even on the lower volume taper schedule. For example if you cut training volume by 40% (from 10 to 6 hours/wk) your volume of intensity will rise to 50% in order to maintain the same training stimulus. Essentially you are cutting out the junk/base miles during your taper and focusing on the quality. That is not to say that you eliminate the warm up/cool down or recovery elements of the intervals. It is to say that you eliminate the added time pre/post intervals and instead go home and recover!
The major findings from this meta-analysis supports the current prevailing wisdom that the optimal tapering involves a reduction in training volume without any modification to the intensity or frequency of training. Specifically, the optimal tapering seems to be achieved with a 41-60% reduction in overall volume. So if you’re used to a 10 h training week with 5 days of riding and 2 days of breakthrough workouts, the volume might drop down to only 1h rides, but there should generally still be five of them and 2 of them should remain condensed interval/sprint workouts.
Furthering the drop in volume, the drop does not need to be instant in the very first days of the taper, but it can be a relatively quick drop over the first few days.
In addition, the ideal tapering duration seems to last 2 weeks. This is somewhat longer than the “traditional” one week that many of us may consider for a taper or recovery week in the typical 4 week cycle of training, and also highlights that a taper is a specific program and not just an extended recovery phase.
The key to a taper is that it is a highly specialized training phase designed to promote an overall drop in training stress by decreasing the volume while maintaining intensity. By doing so, it is permitting your body sufficient resources to recover and adapt by temporarily sacrificing your aerobic capacity while maintaining your anaerobic capacity.
Within the above general template, the actual duration of taper and the type of intensity work during the taper varies depending on the event. So a taper for a period of crit racing would differ from that for a time trial or hilly road race, and these would also differ from that for a multi-day or week stage race. The devil is in the details, so it’s still important to individualize each taper, and we’ll get into that in future articles.
1. Peaking & Tapering – Inigo Mujika PhD, Athletic Club Bilbao for 2006USA Cycling Coaches Symposium
2. Five Golden Rules of Tapering – Guy Thibault PhD, Performance Conditioning for Cycling, Volume 10, #7
About Matt McNamara:
Matt McNamara is a USA Cycling Level 1 coach with over 20 years of racing, coaching and team management experience. He is the President of Sterling Sports Group and races road, track, and cyclocross in Northern California. Sterling Sports Group is a growing company focused on creating a seamless interface between athlete and coach, technology and personal attention. Visit us online to learn more at www.sterlingwins.com.