To achieve your best when it counts, you can only afford to do a full taper before a few key races each year. If you race often and were to taper thoroughly for each race, you would have little time left for hard training. So you learn to "train through" some races. But for the big ones, you will want to go all out to achieve your best.
A recent paper published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine reviewed more than 50 scientific studies on tapering to find out whether tapering betters performance, and how to go about it.
The review showed that there is no question tapering works. Most studies found an improvement of about 3 percent when athletes reduced their training before competition. This translates to more than five minutes for a three-hour mountain bike race or more than a minute for those racing a 40- kilometer time trial.
The effect of a taper on cycling performance has also been examined specifically by Frank Pyke, Ph.D. of the Australian Sports Institute. During a taper by the Australian National Cycling Team an improvement in cycling performance did occur.
However, no change in isokinetic (strength at a set velocity of movement) leg strength occurred. In the second project, an increase in cycling performance occurred after a two-week taper period as did an increase in isokinetic leg strength. However, cycling performance increased most after only one week of the taper while leg strength increased most after the whole two-week taper.
The increases in leg strength and cycling performance were related but at relatively low statistical levels. Since cycling performance peaked one week into the taper and leg strength two weeks into the taper, the low relationship between the increase in cycling performance and leg strength is not surprising. However, both of these studies on cycling do indicate that an increase in strength during the taper period does occur, but it may not be strongly related to the increase in cycling performance.
The above studies do clearly indicate that a taper can improve performance. However, the increase in performance may not be strongly related to an increase in strength or power. So, if an increase in strength and power does not explain the increase in performance, what does? All of the following changes do occur with training and could continue to occur in a brief taper period and so contribute to an increased performance after the taper.
- Due to the lower volume of training during the taper, muscle stores of carbohydrate could be increased.
- The muscle's ability to use oxygen could be increased (increased aerobic enzymes).
- The muscle's ability to tolerate byproducts such as lactic acid of intense anaerobic activity could be improved.
- Improved blood flow to the working muscles could take place.
- More efficient recruitment of muscles and their motor units during physical activity could occur and contribute to an improved performance.
All of the above changes could contribute to an improved performance in cycling. However, because strength is determined by performing, at most, only several muscle actions, it is unlikely that strength is increased during the taper by increased blood flow, muscle carbohydrates, ability to use oxygen or tolerance to waste products such as lactic acid.
Therefore, the increase in strength when it does occur is most likely due to an increase in the ability to recruit the muscles or their motor units. Although the reasons for an increase in cycling, running and swim performance after a taper are unclear, it is clear that an increase in performance can take place due to a taper.
The scientific evidence clearly indicates that the key to effective tapering is to substantially cut back your mileage but to maintain training intensity. Reducing overall mileage has the greatest impact on lessening accumulated fatigue.
The best way to reduce your mileage is not to reduce the distance or time of your workouts substantially, but to cut back only moderately on the number of rides per week. How much you reduce your mileage depends on your current training volume and the distance you will race.