By Coach Maria Simone
Ah, the taper. Depending on your response to taper, you are either dreading this period in your training, or you are eagerly looking forward to it.
Personally, I love the taper. I imagine my body putting itself back together after weeks and months of hard training. It is a time when the body becomes optimized for performance. I prefer to call the taper the “peak period” because that is exactly what this training cycle is designed to do: prepare your body for peak performance.
Even though I love taper, it still comes with its challenges.
In this post, I will review the basics of the taper to help you understand the critical importance of this period in your training cycle.
What is taper?
Taper is one of the cycles in a periodized training plan. As you may recall, a periodized training plan designates specific cycles of training that build toward your events.
Taper – or the peak period – is a reduction of training stress designed to shed fatigue in favor of creating freshness for race day. Training stress is reduced by lowering volume, lowering intensity (or time spent at intensity), or a mix of these methods.
Because the body needs somewhere between 7-14 days to make adaptations to training, there comes a point at which any new training won’t add substantive fitness – but it can add substantive fatigue. The taper walks the balance among maximizing fitness and freshness while minimizing fatigue.
Many athletes worry about losing fitness during the taper, but the research shows the opposite. In fact, Inigo Mujika, researcher and author of Endurance Training: Science and Practice, reports that a taper leads to an average of 2-3% improvements in performance (with the range being anywhere from 0.5-6%).
Because taper is not complete rest, it allows the fatigue to fade faster than your fitness. In fact, you will very likely still be doing moderate volume and intensity during this period. The goal with the training at this point is to maintain fitness without introducing too much fatigue.
Why do a taper?
Not every race needs a taper. Low priority races (what we might call “C” races) may have no taper at all. “B” priority races may have a truncated taper protocol (or no taper). But, for the races we care most about – the “A” priority – the training plan will include some sort of a taper designed to support your peak performance on race day.
As mentioned above, a well-designed taper can result in a 2-3% performance bump. The mechanisms by which this is achieved include:
- Increase in strength and power output.
Research has found that your muscles become stronger given the reduction in training load. The body is able to fully absorb the training in a way that is more pronounced than a standard reduced load week in the previous training cycles.
- Increases in total blood volume and red blood cell count.
Red blood cells are the delivery mechanism for oxygen. As you might imagine, having more of these about can come in handy for endurance athletes. An increase in blood volume allows for greater cardiac output. Put these two together and you’ve made some impressive gains in fitness come race day.
- Improvements in economy
Economy refers to the body’s ability to convert oxygen consumption into propulsion. When your economy improves, you require less energy and oxygen to push a given pace or watts.
- Enhanced glycogen storage
Glycogen is an important fuel source for endurance events. You’ve learned this lesson if you’ve ever bonked in a workout or a race. Tapering has been found to increase glycogen storage in both muscles and the liver. Because of this enhanced glycogen storage, it is normal to gain a few pounds during taper because more carbohydrate results in more water storage (glycogen holds up to 3 times its weight in water).
What to expect in a taper
While a taper has key benefits for athletes, there can be some downsides. Most athletes will report some mixture of sluggishness, fatigue, anxiety, phantom pains, and general moodiness. This is all perfectly normal.
These temporary side effects have their roots in both physiology and psychology. On the one hand, the reduction in training will reduce the amount of “feel good” endorphins we usually get from training. The fatigue you feel is related to the reduction in volume, and the “invisible” work your body is doing to put itself back together. This is similar to the fatigue or sluggishness you may feel during a reduced load week.
Phantom pains may also be related to the mechanisms the body employs for the deep recovery that happens in taper. Research isn’t entirely clear about why these pains appear, but they are common.
On the psychological side, taper represents a disruption to our routine. So, we may have an emotional reaction to this disruption. Additionally, our interpretation of some of the physical effects, noted above, may lead us to question or feel anxiety.
The good news is that these sensations are normal, and within a day or two of the race (or on race morning), these symptoms disappear and we are READY TO ROCK.
I know if I feel bored the day before a race, I am ready to unleash the fury on race day.
A friend of mine always texts me this meme the day before I race. It never fails to crack me up.
Types of tapers
There is no single “right” way to taper, and athletes can have individualized responses to a taper. Generally speaking, a taper will last anywhere from a few days to 3 weeks. For multi-sport athletes, one sport may begin the taper before the others. For example, your run may taper first, then bike, then swim.
Taper designs may include (but are not limited to):
- Large drop in volume with a maintenance of intensity. Frequency of training remains the same.
- Moderate, graded drop in volume, keeping the routine of intensity with a reduction of time at work load
- Short, steep taper – maybe just a few days that constitute a reduction in volume and intensity. (common for B & C races)
In most cases, a taper will include at least a drop in volume, with some maintenance of intensity. This allows the athlete to feel “sharp”, and keeping in some intensity will reduce sensations of sluggishness.
The type of taper that works for any given athlete depends on how well that athlete recovers normally from training, how long an athlete may hold on to fitness gains, and previous success with tapers (or tapes that weren’t as successful).
Interestingly, research finds that the type of taper is tied less to the demands of a race and more to an individual athlete’s typical recovery times (which can be assessed through training). Additionally, each of us “hold” fitness for varying periods of time. That being said, the taper for long course is likely to be a bit longer than that for short course. However, this may not always be the case depending on your unique physiology. In this respect, the success of your previous tapers is a good blueprint for your future tapers.
Common Taper Mistakes
The “taper crazies” may lead some athletes to commit mistakes that interrupt the benefits of their taper. Some of the most common mistakes include:
- Training too hard. Panic or fear training will not enhance your fitness. It will only make you tired. Trust your plan. Trust your coach. Stick to the prescriptions and let the body put itself back together. A variant of this is racing other athletes during the taper or in your shake out workouts. Repeat after me: Race on Race Day. Let the others tire themselves out. You have nothing to prove in your easy ride or run.
- Filling all the newly found free time with lots of chores and busy work. Yard work is a special killer here. Avoid physically demanding chores.
- Falling off a recovery protocol. Just because we aren’t training as much doesn’t mean we don’t need to continue with our recovery protocols: sleep, mobility work, proper nutrition and hydration, foam rolling, etc. All of these remain vitally important.
- Falling off a mental fitness routine. Use the extra time in your schedule to commit to a daily mental fitness routine. As you approach race day, strategic visualization, journaling, and the like become potent strategies that will maximize your race day performance.
Getting to the taper means you have done all of the hard work necessary to achieve your race day success. The hay is in the barn, and it is almost time to burn that mother down.