Athletes, experts consider the best ways to taper

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Preparing to race is fairly straightforward: You train hard, rest a little and then go and hammer on race day.

Much has been written about how to prepare months before an important race, but little has been written about how to taper (the easing-off period) in the weeks preceding the race. How you taper can hinder or benefit your race performance as much as your training does.

Athletes are gradually waking up to the idea that reducing their training (i.e., tapering) prior to racing is a good idea, but major disagreements remain about exactly how to taper. There is considerable debate about whether one should taper by reducing training volume (mileage) while maintaining training intensity (speed); by reducing training volume while increasing the intensity of the training session; or by reduce both mileage and intensity.

A related concern is the amount by which the volume should be reduced: 25, 50, 75 percent or some other percentage? The controversy also encompasses such questions as: How often should one train (i.e., frequency), how long should the actual tapering period last, and whether different types of competitive events require different tapers.

Yet another concern about the specifications of the tapering period is losing fitness during a period of reduced training. Is this really a legitimate concern? Is there some way to create a taper so that detraining is unlikely?

Fortunately, scientific research can answer many of these perplexing questions. Studies have revealed that drastically reducing frequency and volume of training during a taper period produces no problems. However, reductions in training intensity have lead to difficulties with respect to race performance. It appears that intensity is key to the preservation of overall fitness during periods of reduced training.

But the question still remains whether average workout intensity should increase during the taper period or be kept the same. In addition, how does frequency of training factor into the intensity equation? Would it be wise to take complete days off from training during a tapering period, or would it be best to train at least lightly every day?

In addition to the confusion about intensity and frequency, many athletes are unconvinced when exercise physiologists suggest that volume should be reduced by two-thirds during a tapering period. Athletes are compulsive by nature and have a hard time believing that less training can make them stronger and faster. Therefore, athletes generally keep tapering periods as short as possible (days rather than weeks).

If two to three weeks of reduced training seems drastic, bear in mind that training is a destructive process. For instance, when you run, you stress muscles, tendons and ligaments. Given time to heal, the slightly damaged body parts respond by becoming stronger.

However, during months of intensive training, they do not have time to recover properly. Tapering gives these micro-injuries a chance to heal, and it allows an athlete time to rebuild his or her mental energy and focus on the race.

With few exceptions, the physiological benefits of a workout dont show up until at least seven to 10 days after the workout, at which point the body has rebuilt itself even stronger. I have observed many athletes working out hard during the final 10 days prior to a big competition. And for what? The benefits of those intense sessions will not show up until after the race is over.

Scientific studies have shown that athletes who reduce their training by 90 percent during the tapering period while maintaining frequency of intense workouts, reducing the actual interval time period and increasing the rest interval between intervals have increased muscle glycogen stores, increased glycolytic enzymes and higher blood volumes (which is beneficial).

An additional bonus for athletes using this 90-percent plan is that this type of taper consists of intervals close to race pace, which prepares them for the exact neuromuscular requirements needed on race day. As a result, their nervous and muscular systems learn to handle the required pace in an energy-efficient manner. On race day, the athlete will settle into the goal race pace almost without thinking.

For an Ironman triathlon, for example, it would be wise to start the run taper about four weeks out from the race. There are no scientific studies analyzing the taper period for an Ironman marathon that I am aware of; however, I would suggest a 75-50-30-15 plan (i.e., 75 percent of usual miles in the first week, 50 percent in the second week, etc).

In the final week, focus on two interval sessions of short duration, with adequate rest between each interval. Cycling and swimming create less impact stress than running, so start to cut back on that training about two to three weeks prior to the race.

To summarize, tapering works by boosting muscle glycogen stores, increasing aerobic enzymes, increasing blood volume, improving neuromuscular coordination, enhancing the repair of micro-tears sustained in muscle and connective tissue, and enhancing mental focus.

Athletes who do not structure a tapering period into their training program prior to a race are doing themselves a disservice by inhibiting their muscles from functioning at the highest possible level on race day.