Tapering: The theory behind the madness

Tapering: The theory behind the madness

If you haven’t read my post from last week, check it out before reading through this as I’ll be referring back to it throughout. This post will cover the theory of tapering (what does the science really say?), while simultaneously referring back to the taper of our five RID athletes leading up to Ultra Trail Cape Town. To be quite honest with you, the issue of tapering is one that tends to get on my nerves. This is because when it comes to endurance sports, every man and his dog seems to think they are an expert on the matter. The perpetuation of inaccurate information or stereotypes without understanding the science behind the madness that is tapering is truly frustrating at times. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again, no taper is better than a sh*t taper – and here’s why:

 

What is a taper?

The word taper gets thrown around a lot, so let’s make sure we’re all on the same wavelength as we go through this article. A taper is the last portion of training before a competition (usually 7 – 21 days) in which there is a reduction in training volume (Mujika & Padilla, 2003; McNeely & Sandler, 2007; Murach & Bagley, 2015). Drawing back to last week’s article, each one of our RID athletes had a reduction in training volume (average 421min/54km three weeks before race | 233min/31km one week before race) for varying lengths of taper (ranging from 18 – 7 days). That seems to be a box ticked in that case – but I’ll come back to this later.

 

What is the theory behind tapering?

If you’ve ever heard of periodization then you might be interested to know that the concept originated from early work by Hans Seyle in the 1950s who coined the term general adaptation syndrome (GAS). Periodization has evolved a lot since then and there are plenty of critics who tend to bash modern periodization, but the principles of GAS are still valid. Simply put, GAS states that whenever we go out and train, we have a stimulus (fatigue), followed by tissue damage, and a subsequent (acute) decrease in performance (McNeely & Sandler, 2007). You’ll know this if you’ve ever tried to run two personal best 5km runs in back to back days. Your body is simply too fatigued to improve on your performance from yesterday – this is the decrease in performance I am talking about. However, the GAS states that if you allow for enough recovery time, your body will not only recover, but adapt as well, and become stronger. This is the concept of progressive overload and it’s essentially what you are trying to do throughout your training in preparation for a competition. However, what we sometimes forget about is that if that recovery process is either too short, or indeed too long, your training adaptation will be either negative or lost all together. This timing is critical for me, because the whole concept of the tapering process is built off of training residuals (i.e. how long can you maintain a performance level before detraining starts to take place). The taper is essentially trying to stimulate you just enough to maintain your (chronic) fitness that you have built up during months of training while reducing your (acute) fatigue which you get from daily training, but also maintains your fitness.

 

Ultimately, athletes want to be as prepared as possible for an upcoming race. Your preparedness is the fine balance between; how fatigued you are, how much fitness you have accumulated, and how much fitness have you been able to maintain in a taper period. Now there are a lot of scientific ways of trying to calculate this – for those of you who use Strava, you can check out Elevate who use the fitness trend line (see Figure 1 below) which is the balance of fitness and fatigue (which they call form). For those of you using Training Peaks, they do something similar, making use of a Training Stress Score to give you an idea of your form heading into a race. Both of these technologies are typically based off of heart rate and volume of training, and have been equally lauded and criticized in the past. The reality is that before all of the numbers came about, you could achieve a similar outcome by simply asking yourself, “how am I feeling?” and “how does my body feel on a run currently?”. The numbers below (see Figure 1) are only supposed to help guide decision making.

 

Figure 1: The Elevate dashboard from Strava. This is my training over the past few weeks (yes I’m injured), in which you’ll notice that whenever there is a big spike in fatigue, there is a subsequent small increase in fitness and decrement in form.

 

The up-side of this whole conundrum, is that a well-designed taper with reduced volume and quality (high intensity) training can preserve chronic fitness levels for up to four weeks in endurance athletes (Murach & Badley, 2015), all the while decreasing fatigue, which is why we see increases in performances of anywhere between 0.5 – 11% during the taper period (Mujika & Padilla, 2003; McNeely & Sandler, 2007). What then, are the mechanisms behind these improvements?

 

Murach and Badley (2015), explain that during a period where an athlete has reduced their training volume, their muscle energy stores (initial muscle glycogen levels prior to race) are restored after having been chronically lowered during training. They argue that this is the first reason for improved endurance performance owing to the use of glycogen for energy in endurance running. Secondly, Murach and Badley (2015) argue that it is actually our fast-twitch muscle fibers (think explosive power), more so than our slow twitch fibers (think long term consistent force production) which benefit from a taper period. These fast-twitch fibers actually grow during the taper period owing to the reduced volume but maintained intensity and improve both power output and running economy. Lastly, they explain that the psychological benefits of tapering (improved mood, decreased perception of effort) is the final reason for the improvement in performance during/after a good taper. There’s also the small matter of VO2MAX that has been found to increase during a taper period (McNeely & Sandler, 2007), which means we’re able to use oxygen more effectively to produce energy during our race.

 

Key elements of a taper

So that’s the science of the taper – but what should it look like? The literature points towards a few key aspects that must be addressed during the taper. Firstly, there should be a reduction in training load during the taper (training load is training intensity, plus training volume, plus training frequency), but not too much as to lose previous training adaptations (Mujika & Padilla, 2003). This is essentially the reason that I say, “no taper at all is better than a sh*t taper”, because if you get this balance wrong, you stand to lose more than the 0.5 – 11% (average 3%) performance gain you get with a taper. The balance of these three factors that make up training load is critical to a successful taper. Mujika and Padilla (2003) suggest that, for recreational athletes, training intensity should be maintained (to continue stimulating adaptation), while training volume should be reduced (by roughly 50-70% over the course of the taper), while training frequency can also be reduced by 30-50% (although for highly trained athletes this frequency should be maintained).

 

Looking back on three of our selected RID athletes, we see very different tapers (see Table 1 below) with regards to their volume (average of minutes and kilometers), intensity (minutes/km), and frequency of training (number of sessions per week). I’ll discuss my thoughts on their respective tapers in the last paragraph of this post.

 

Table 1: Three different RID athletes with three very different tapers. Weeks are Saturday to Friday at three weeks out (10-16Nov) to one week out (24-30Nov). Numbers are percentage change (decrease as a minus, increase as a plus).

 Weeks 10 – 16 Nov 17 – 23 Nov 24 – 30 Nov
Athlete Volume Intensity Frequency Volume Intensity Frequency Volume Intensity Frequency
100k N/A N/A N/A -23 +20 0 -70 -11 -50
35k1 N/A N/A N/A -36 +20 -33 -8 +7 +100
20k N/A N/A N/A +59 -10 0 -48 +16 -25

 

The second key aspect of the taper is the length of taper. The NSCA’s McNeely and Sandler (2007), argue that endurance athletes who train less than four hours per week need not really taper at all! Simply put, these athletes don’t train enough to have any serious accumulated fatigue, and so one to two days off before a race is as much as a taper as they will need. They suggest that this is particularly applicable to novice athletes who have not completely mastered their sport, and need constant stimulation so as not to lose any built up training effect. In other words, these athletes will benefit more from a continued high volume of training, than having a rest (McNeely & Sandler, 2007). While I have to say this sounds perfectly logical, I do think that it depends what type of training you are used to. If you do a HIIT session one to two days before your race as a novice, you may carry some muscle soreness into the race which can hinder your performance.

McNeely and Sandler (2007), group tapers based on the importance of the event you are trying to peak for. They argue that an endurance athlete should only have one major taper per year (for their most important race), with other tapers being made up of moderate (1-2 per year), or minor tapers (2-3 per year). They suggest that for major tapers, athletes doing 6-10 hours training volume per week should taper for roughly seven days, while athletes doing 10-15 should taper for fourteen days, and those doing fifteen or more hours of work per week for twenty-one to thirty days. Assuming that for four of our five RID athletes (bar the 21k athlete), this was their biggest race of the year (major taper), then I would say we got this pretty spot on. Our 100k athlete peaked at about 15 hours of training per week and tapered for a full two weeks, while our 35k – 65k athletes training volume varied from 5-7 hours in peak weeks and their training volumes reduced to a much lesser degree (rate of volume decline was not as steep). If I am being critical with myself, I would advocate for even less taper time for most of our RID athletes next time around. I often feel pressure from people outside of my coaching-athlete group to have extended tapers, and I need to hold myself to a higher standard than that – certainly a lesson learned there. Just to close up the loop here, McNeely and Sandler (2007), propose that minor tapers be; one, three and five days respectively for 6-10, 10-15, and >15 hours training volume athletes, while moderate tapers be 3-5 days, 7-10days, and 10-14 days for the same relative groups.

 

Closing thoughts

Looking back on our athletes and their respective tapers, I am satisfied that we reduced training volume sufficiently leading up to the Ultra Trail Cape Town. However, reflecting on the tapers that were, next time I will make our 100k athlete’s taper exponentially steeper than it was. For example, a linear taper means that the same amount of volume reduction is seen each day and week of the taper i.e. a 50% reduction in volume in each subsequent week during the taper. Using hypothetical numbers, that means a weekly volume reduction in the following manner: 100 à 50 à 25. An exponential taper can be either steep or shallow for example: 100 à 40 à 20 (steep) or (100 à 60 à20 (shallow). Currently our 100k athlete has a very shallow exponential taper (100 à 77 à 21), and I would like to try a steep exponential taper with him in future – which is argued to be the most appropriate taper for well-trained endurance athletes (Mujika & Pudilla, 2003). In general, our training intensity stayed fairly consistent throughout the taper period (no more than a 20% shift in either direction), which, considering the change in training surface is not bad. In future, I would advocate for heart rate as the best measure of training intensity during this time, as it is not effected by training surface. Lastly, for the most part, our training frequency was good during the taper. The reality is that while I may have prescribed frequent training sessions during this time – we are working with recreational runners, and sometimes life gets in the way of the ideal scenario.

 

Let me know what you think behind the science of taper, the tapering of some of our athletes, and tapers you have used in the past. What taper suites you best? Have you learned anything about your body while trying different types of tapering? Next time I’ll be discussing some of the evidence behind these different types of taper, so keep your eyes peeled for that! Have a great holiday season everyone, and don’t forget to allow yourself some deserved rest!

 

References:

McNeely, E., & Sandler, D. 2007. Tapering for endurance athletes. National Strength and Conditioning Association. 29(5) pp 18-24.

Mujika, I., & Padilla, S. 2003. Scientific bases for precompetition tapering strategies. Medicine & Science in Sports & exercise. pp 1182-1187.

Murach, KA., & Bagley, JR. 2015. Less is more: The physiological basis for tapering in endurance, strength, and power athletes. Sports. 3 pp 209-218.

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