Tapering and peaking for your priority race
Tapering and peaking. I bet some readers will be thinking “more jargon”! For others this will be a familiar topic that coaches roll out at this time of year.
On this basis, the objectives of this article are two-fold. If you are in the “what more jargon” group you may be a novice triathlete training 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. 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. This article builds on a historical newsletter article by thetrilife.com coach Thom Phillips.
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:
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 comprehensive review of the latest research can be found in Tapering and Peaking for Optimal Performance by our friend Inigo Mujika published in 2009 by Human Kinetics.
McNeely E, Sandler D. Tapering for endurance athletes. Strength Cond J 2007; 29: 18-24.