Pre-Race Taper

Reduced training during the time frame directly preceding an athletic event is termed, the pre-race taper. The pre-race taper has been part of endurance competition training for generations. However it was not until the 1980s that scientific scrutiny began to be applied. Several pioneering studies did indeed confirm what athletes and coaches had long believed, a properly constructed pre-race taper results in performance gains for the ensuing race. The key of course is in the descriptor, “properly constructed”, since a poorly executed taper will result in relatively poor performance. Thus effort was undertaken to better understand what makes up a good taper and, additionally, what is actually happening in the body to bring about the positive effects of a taper.

A pre-race taper consists of several variables, time, training intensity, and training volume. If the taper is too long then de-conditioning creeps in. On the other end, if the taper is too short then the full benefits are not realized. A variety of investigations into optimal taper time have been done. There is no absolute guideline or consensus but tapers ranging from 7 – 21 days appear to yield the best results. Tapers of 2 or longer weeks are usually done in a “stepped-down” fashion to prevent de-conditioning. In general, shorter tapers appear best for shorter endurance events (e.g., 5 km running race, or 20 km bicycle time trial), whereas longer tapers may best be suited for long and ultra-distance events. The taper length would obviously be increased if the athlete had been overreaching or overtraining. This unenviable circumstance really requires a two-step process, relative rest to repair from overtraining, and then a taper. In reality this is an extremely difficult task to get right and it is best to avoid overreaching (overtraining) in those final training weeks before the taper.

With respect to how the taper is actually constructed it is important to reduce training volume but maintain training intensity. Tapers in which volume is maintained but intensity reduced have not been shown to offer race performance enhancement. A rough equation is to cut the overall volume by 50%, but maintain the intensity component (e.g., interval training). However, it must be emphasized that the exact composition of a taper depends upon the sport, the training routine up to the start of the taper, individual variations, and coaching preferences. An experienced coach can be a very valuable asset in this regard. Endurance athletes structuring their own programs must gather experience over time, and must constantly fine-tune to achieve the desired result.

Results do indeed vary but some of the published studies – using both actual races as well as lab testing – have shown that athletes can realize race performance boosts from 1% to 10%! Certainly this kind of performance edge is a worthwhile goal.

Although there is now considerable agreement on the value of a taper, there is not a tremendous amount of information on what is actually happening to the body during this time. Investigations have focused on two broad categories, physiological and psychological. It is understandable that many initial scientific studies focused on physiological variables. After all it is inherently easier to measure glycogen in a muscle biopsy than it is to understand the inner workings of the human brain. Recently, more investigations into psychological processes have been done with interesting results and the promise of more for the future. In any event it is important to keep in mind that both physiological and psychological adaptations are important since neither alone can fully account for what is observed when athletes race. As explanations continue to develop, one need not wait to reap the benefits of a good taper. Enjoy!
Additional INFO

Although a complete discussion is beyond the scope of this article, here are a few interesting highlights of scientific investigations into adaptations that occur during a taper. Although some changes are small the summation can have a strong effect on performance.

1) VO2 max, the best measure of aerobic performance, can increase during a taper. Some studies reported up to 5 – 6 % improvement.
2) Muscle glycogen has been shown to increase during a taper – provided the athlete is consuming a carbohydrate rich diet (~75% of caloric intake)
3) Improved economy of movement (the oxygen cost of exercise at a given submaximal exercise intensity) can also improve during a taper.
4) Improved mood and better sleep quality have been documented during a taper.
5) Rating of perceived exertion may decline during a taper. In other words athletes’ self-rated perception of effort indicated they felt less effort at a given workload (note: this is always a nice feeling).


Mark Jenkins


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