• Tapering and peaking: what really happens?

    Liz Scott

    Liz Scott

    There is plenty of information about tapering available – how to reduce your hours, what sort of sessions you should do and so on.   This article describes what actually happens to our bodies during this time and why it is so important.

    If you are a novice triathlete training for a sprint distance triathlon maybe 4-8 hrs a week, the first part of this article will be a brief overview of what the terms mean and more importantly what does it all mean for you so please read on. For experienced athletes, looking to glean every possible ounce of performance advantage out of their training, a more in depth look at what happens physiologically and psychologically during a taper period will follow.

    An overview of tapering and peaking

    The “taper” is the period of training immediately preceding a priority race during which the balance of training load and recovery is modified so that the athlete reaches a “peak” in the ability to perform that coincides with their race day.

    The design of a taper (meaning how long before the race and describing the volume, frequency and intensity of the sessions) is very definitely dependent upon the individual but for most athletes an effective taper will mean:

    • a reduction in training volume of 40%-60%
    • training frequency should be maintained i.e, if you train 6 sessions a week regularly then keep this up during the taper but just reduce the volume of the sessions
    • including race intensity and above efforts during sessions

    When should you start your taper? Research suggests that performance enhancements are achieved using a taper period of 4 to 28 days. There is strong evidence (McNeely and Sandler, 2007) to suggest that equating the number of weekly training hours to the number of days of the taper period is a good rule of thumb. A word here for novice athletes that may have just started training and may be training 4 hours a week. The research suggests that athletes training at this level will not benefit much from a taper as described above but should take one or two days off training immediately before the event to be rested and ready to race.

    But what happens when you taper?

    It is likely that the improvements that we see following a taper are due more to the reduction in fatigue rather than any positive development in fitness. So what exactly happens?

    Your blood changes. Haemoglobin, the proportion of red blood cells in the blood and red blood cell volume all increase during a taper leading to an improvement in oxygen transport and aerobic capacity.

    Your hormones change. The ratio of the anabolic (build and repair) hormones and catabolic (stress and damage causing) increases during an effective taper.

    Your muscles grow. Sport specific muscle strength and power increases account for much of the performance gains achieved following a taper.

    Your sleep quality improves. This is important as growth hormone which encourages muscle repair is released during sleep.

    Your state of mind improves. Tapering has been shown to affect mood positively by reducing tension, depression and anger while increasing motivation and arousal both extremely important indicators in performance. (Note here that some athletes find tapering itself stressful and will worry about detraining and this does need to be managed as stress will influence the effectiveness of the taper.)

    There is more to an effective taper than just cutting down volume and this article is just an overview to get you thinking about your race preparation. There are plenty of areas that are worth discussing in future articles such as the mode of taper (exponential versus step down), nutrition during taper and dealing with the psychological issues of tapering.

    A review of research in this area can be found in Tapering and Peaking for Optimal Performance by our friend Inigo Mujika published in 2009 by Human Kinetics.  For more information on how to structure your taper read this article by thetrilife.com coach Thom Phillips.

    Liz Scott

    Liz Scott is a director of thetrilife.com

    McNeely E, Sandler D. Tapering for endurance athletes. Strength Cond J 2007; 29: 18-24.