Tapering Part 1: The Method Behind The Madness

Tapering Part 1: The Method Behind The Madness

Go down to your local athletics club and you will find that everyone has some sort of tapering strategy before race day, often prescribed by their coach but the scientific rationale for the tapers we have encountered are often somewhat dubious! In this two part series, we will investigate the use of a taper before competition and how best to implement these into your competitive season or before your next major event!

Tapering for Competition: An Overview

Tapering is the term representative of a protocol based upon a reduction in the training load of an athlete in the final days before competition with the aim of maximizing performance. This reduction of training load can be achieved through the alteration of several components, including the training volume, intensity, and frequency (Wenger & Bell, 1986), as well as the pattern of the taper (progressive or step taper) and its duration (Mujika & Padilla, 2003; Houmard & Johns, 1994; Mujika, 1998; Houmard, 1991). Tapering is widely used by athletes across many sporting disciplines to gain a performance edge over competitors, with enhanced performance documented in runners (Houmard et al, 1994), swimmers (Mujika et al, 2002), cyclists (Neary et al, 2003), rowers (Jurimae et al, 2003), and triathletes (Margaritis et al, 2003)

However, the type and effectiveness of the taper is critical. With the most simple confounding factor often also the most overlooked Have you earned your taper?

The biggest challenge for athletes, coaches, and sports scientists consists of determining and applying the strategy which will attenuate accumulated fatigue from hard training, while also retaining/further enhancing physical fitness. Many strategies which decrease training load have been documented in the literature, with some studies suggesting that the reduction in training volume should be substantial; near 85% of normal training volume (Houmard & Johns, 1994), whereas others have reported similar improvements in performance after a 31% reduction (Bannister et al, 1999). This decrease in training volume is generally through reduction of the duration of each training session (Bannister et al, 1999; Mujika et al, 2000; Neary et al, 2003). However, some coaches prefer to manipulate the training frequency (number of training sessions per week) to decrease weekly training volume (Child et al, 2000). The duration of taper is also open to wide variation in the literature; although most research has used a 2-wk taper (Bannister et al, 1999; Jeukendrup et al, 1992), significant improvements in performance have also been reported for very short (7 days) (Neary et al, 2003) or very long tapers (28 days) (Mujika et al, 1996). Implementation of effective tapering strategies will be explored in part two of this post; Let’s get nerdy and explore the why before the how.

The Science

The physiological basis for tapering induced performance enhancement is centered upon augmentation of both aerobic and muscular adaptations to training. Maximal oxygen consumption (VO2max) is an established determinant of endurance performance (Saltin & Astrand, 1967), with taper-induced enhanced red cell production (Mujika et al, 2000; 1997; Shepley et al, 1992) and incremental change in oxidative enzyme activity (Neary et al, 1992; 2003; Shepley et al, 1992) resulting in enhanced oxygen extraction, subsequently augmenting VO2max (Neary et al, 2003).

Another important determinant of performance is the energy cost of exercise (Di Prampero et al, 1986), however discrepancies exist within the literature due to lack of standardisation of training and tapering programmes, in addition to the caliber of athletes studied (Mujika et al, 2004). Significant improvements in exercise energy cost have been documented in tapered swimmers (Johns et al, 1992) and runners (Houmard et al, 1994), with biomechanical and neural factors hypothesised to enhance strength and power; two factors known to influence the energetic cost of exercise (Johns et al, 1992; Trappe et al, 2000).

Aerobic endurance outlines the capacity to sustain a high percentage of VO2max (Bosquet et al, 2002). Increases in the capacity to store large amounts of liver/muscle glycogen, in addition to substrate utilisation (Sparing carbohydrate by using more fatty acids as energy) have been associated with increments in aerobic endurance, however the respiratory exchange ratio (RER: which acts an indicator of carbohydrate & fat usage) is most often unchanged after a taper intervention (Houmard et al, 1994; Neary et al, 2003). Despite this, tapering can induce increases in muscle glycogen content, which provides the potential to augment performance (Walker et al, 2000).

Want these awesome physiological adaptations? Earn them!

Although these changes can occur rapidly when training load is decreased, they are also prone to rapid decline if the prior training stimulus is insufficient (Mujika & Padilla, 2000). Research has previously documented decreases in blood volume (Houmard et al, 1992) after a few days, which negatively affected cardiovascular function by decreasing stroke volume and cardiac output (Two things you do NOT want to decrease!). Oxidative enzymatic activity and glycogen synthesis also decrease rapidly if prior training stimulus is insufficient (Coyle et al, 1985; Houmard et al, 1992), both of which will contribute negatively to decreases in V02max and glycogen stores as outlined in the detraining literature (Costill et al, 1985; Houmard et al, 1992).

Although, these results show that taper-induced positive physiological changes are only transient and may return very rapidly to pre-taper values or, eventually, to initial values in the case of a long-term insufficient training stimulus (Mujika & Padilla, 2000). Finding an optimal tapering strategy (providing sufficient training stimulus has been achieved), can and will positively influence your performance if implemented correctly!

To find out how best to implement a tapering strategy for your next competition. Come knocking next  Saturday for some awesome weekend reading!

Until then, get out there and create that stimulus so you have something to taper!


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