Toolbox: Tapering to a Razor’s Edge
For many of us and for the pro athletes too, the long season that began Down Under is rolling to its conclusion in Paris-Tours and Lombardy. Many riders are playing out the string with the existing fitness from a long year, but let’s take a look into the science of how to make use of one final strong taper and peak before going into hibernation.
Peaking for the Worlds
The Vuelta sometimes seems to be the Rodney Dangerfield of Grand Tours and never able to get any real respect. Back in the days, it was the first of the big three tours, taking place in April and May. With such an early date, it was hard recruiting a top-quality field. Since its switch in the late 1990s to its September date and inclusion in the ProTour, the fields are stronger but it’s still difficult to shake the sense that it’s a venue for those looking to redeem an otherwise lean (i.e., bad Tour) season.
Then there’s the other problem of the World’s being scheduled the week post-Vuelta. While many riders start the Vuelta to gain fitness and peak for the Worlds, many also quit partway through for the exact same reason of avoiding overcooking themselves.
We can partly thank sport science and research into peaking and tapering for such an attitude within the peloton. It has long been known amongst athletes and coaches that continually hammering yourself into the ground is not the best strategy for hitting a physical peak. Therefore, gone are the days where most riders will try to win every race from February to October. Instead, the increasing specialization of the sport has led riders to aim for specific events and types of races.
For the common rider, this template was first systematically laid out by Joe Friel’s classic “Cyclists Training Bible” in 1996. As part of periodization and aiming for specific races, it became critical to know just exactly how to alter training the final few weeks to avoid both under- and over-training.
At its heart, training consists of manipulating volume (frequency, duration) and intensity of efforts. What is the best combination of these two variables in the weeks leading up to a peak? This seemingly simple question is actually quite difficult to nail down in the lab. First off is the difficulty in recruiting appropriate subjects. Most studies require competitive athletes ideally training for a major event, but these are typically the last subjects willing to sign up for studies that may mess up their training and main event. Secondly, keep in mind that individual variability is huge in terms of response to a training load or a tapering program.
Surveying the Literature
With the above caveats in mind, a recent study in the top journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise surveyed the entire existing tapering literature to draw some general conclusions.
The methodology of this study is a meta-analysis, where all available data from previous studies are pooled together and statistically analyzed. Of course, this is only a useful technique when there is a large body of literature to draw general conclusions from. If there’s only 2 or 3 papers, the power of this technique becomes far too weak.
To compile the relevant studies, the authors searched six different scientific databases for studies with the following criteria:
• Competitive athletes were used. This is vital to address one of the key caveats I discussed above in terms of both scientific control (less test-to-test variability than with recreational or non-fit subjects) and realism (after all, we’re concerned with elite performance, not couch potatoes).
• Sufficient detail provided about the actual tapering intervention. This detail is important because the authors are trying to tease out what kind of tapering works best.
• Use of actual competition or field-based criterion performance. This again adds to the realism and applicability of the research. An example of this might be the use of performance during a 10 km time trial rather than how long the subject can ride at a set intensity.
• Enough data provided for the investigators to calculate statistical effect sizes.
• If the data is reported in more than one study, it was only used once.
Of the original 182 potential studies found, only 27 matched the above inclusion criteria. This still makes for a very broad and strong dataset.
From this group of studies, the authors investigated the effects of the following on “performance” loosely defined as the test performed pre- and post-taper:
• Amount of decrease in training intensity
• Amount of decrease in volume
• Amount of decrease in frequency
• Pattern of the taper and its duration
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.
Bosquet, L, J. Montpetit, D. Arvisais, and I. Mujika. Effects of tapering on performance: a meta-analysis. Med Sci Sports Exerc 39: 1358-1365.
Stephen Cheung has just moved to Brock University, with a research specialization in the effects of thermal stress on human physiology and performance. Good thing too, because it was 30oC and humid this past Canadian Thanksgiving weekend. He can be reached for comments at [email protected].