Tapering to a Razor's Edge

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.

Peaking Science

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 are only two or three 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.

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