You probably experienced yourself how sensitive your body becomes when you decrease the workload the days before a competition. This period is called tapering and comprises a range of different concepts how to do it. Pro triathlete Rachel Joyce talks about the art of tapering, and she is very right as scientific data is still scarce.
For all of you who are competing tapering is a key element of the physical preparation in the last 2 to 3 weeks up to the race. If you dig in the literature data about taper is very scarce and not very conclusive. There is definitely a lack of studies.
The focus of the available studies is narrow, they mainly look at a single competition only, a single peak, and not on what tapering should be like if multiple peaking is required (e.g. weekly, multi-day or multiple events).
You may not believe it, back in 1912 the South African runner Christian Gitsham who finished second in the Stockholm Olympic marathon set out the day before this race to run the complete marathon distance.
Only in 1960ties taper became more recognized and was then defined as a period for adaptation and for the decrease of fatigue without inducing detraining effects.
Today tapering strategies out there range from short-term to long-term approaches, from stepwise to exponential taper with slow or fast decay. To put it in a nutshell, the proceeding is still mainly based on trial and error.
Let's start this text with a quote from Prof. Timothy Noakes, the author of Waterlogged and the Lore of Running:
»Once you decide to taper, do as little training as your mind will allow you, but do that little at a fast pace!«
This sentence indicates already the problems that come along with tapering.
Most coaches are quite insecure about the most suitable training strategies for each individual athlete. Of some cues you can catch hold of today that are beyond a mere trial-and-error approach. Only recently sports scientists have increased their understanding of the relationship between the reduction of the training load before a competition and the associated performance changes.
THE TRAINING LOAD OR THE TRAINING STIMULUS IN A COMPETITIVE SPORT CAN BE DESCRIBED AS A
COMBINATION OF TRAINING INTENSITY, VOLUME AND FREQUENCY
This training load is markedly reduced during the taper in an attempt to reduce general fatigue and muscle fatigue in specific. Anyhow, reduced training should not have a negative impact on training-induced adaptations. Insufficient training stimuli could result in a partial loss of training-induced physiological and biochemical adaptations, also known as detraining.
Study results point out that the training load of athletes should not be reduced at the expense of training intensity during a taper.
Data suggests better performance outcomes with low-volume than with moderate-volume tapers. Bosquet et al. determined through their meta-analysis that performance improvement during the taper was highly sensitive to the reduction in training volume.
These authors agree that maximal performance gains are obtained with a total reduction in training volume of 40-60% of pretaper value, and that such a reduction should be achieved by decreasing the duration of the training sessions, rather than decreasing the frequency of training.
This finding suggests that athletes would maximize taper-associated benefits by roughly dividing their training volume by half.
According to Bosquet et al., decreasing training frequency (i.e. the number of weekly training sessions) has not been shown to significantly improve performance. However, these authors pointed out that the decrease in training frequency interacts with other training variables, particularly training volume and intensity, which makes it difficult to isolate the precise effect of a reduction in training frequency on performance.
While further investigations are required, this result suggests that athletes would benefit from maintaining a similar number of training sessions per week during the taper.
A taper duration of 8 to 14 days seems to represent the borderline between the positive influence of fatigue disappearance and the negative influence of detraining on performance. Performance improvements can also be expected after 1-, 3-, or 4-week tapers.
However, negative results may be experienced by some athletes. This interindividual variability in the optimal taper duration has already been highlighted. The training performed in the lead-up to the taper greatly influences the optimal individual duration of the taper.
Overload training before the taper causes a greater stress and needs longer to recover. Millet et al. concluded that a simple questionnaire to assess anxiety and perceived fatigue could be used to adjust the optimal duration of tapering.
The majority of available studies used a progressive decrease of the training load. Bigger performance improvements are reported after a progressive taper when compared with a step taper.
Nevertheless, Bosquet et al.were not able to address the effect of the kind of progressive taper (i.e., linear or exponential with fast or slow decay of the training load) on performance.
Recommendations rely on the work of Banister et al.with triathletes, who suggest that a fast decay, which implied a lower training volume, was more beneficial to cycling and running performance than a slow decay of the training load.
The condition of autonomous nervous system (ANS) and immune system play an essential role during taper. They induce both adaptive effects and stress reactions. The high frequency of stimuli imposed during the pre-taper overload training phase that ensure an optimum of adaptive effects declines in the taper phase.
If one does not succeed to taper by maintaining a certain activity state of these two systems, then it can happen that the body loses its tension and falls into the "holiday trap".
It is common knowledge that illnesses often appear in phases of relaxation. This is due to the fact that the control mechanisms exerted by these systems give in and debalance the body.
INCOMPLETE RECOVERY FROM FREQUENT TRAINING CAN WORSEN THE NEGATIVE EFFECTS DURING TAPER
During tapering the activity of the ANS and the immune system should not decrease dramatically. All bodily functions are influenced by the activity state of ANS and immunity, be it the heart, the vessels, the kidneys, the gut or the brain.
If those two systems run out of balance then the gateways for stress-related effects are open.
The range of phenomena is broad and ranges from sleep disturbances, prolonged fatigue, lassitude, pain symptoms, to infections. In this perspective, one of the main goals of recovery during the taper would be to keep ANS activity and immunity in balance, and not to turn lethargic.
Essential for the systems' high maintenance level is sleep, good food, well-dosed massages (the ANS tonicity should not drop) and a high dose of Biestmilch.
Biestmilch supports immunity and the nervous system with the impact of improving healing and being preventive when it comes to the negative effects of tapering. Very essential, you have to avoid a lethargic state of mind and body!
Bosquet L, Montpetit J, Arvisais D, Mujika I. Effects of tapering on performance: a meta-analysis. Med Sci Sports Exerc,39(8):1358-65, 2007
Millet GP, Groslambert A, Barbier B, Rouillon JD, Candau RB. Modelling the relationships between training, anxiety, and fatigue in elite athletes. Int J Sports Med, 26(6):492-8, 2005
Banister EW, Carter JB, Zarkadas PC. Training theory and taper: validation in triathlon athletes. Eur J Appl Physiol Occup Physiol 1999;79(2):182-91
Le Meur Y, Hausswirth C, Mujika I: Tapering for competition: A review. Science & Sports 27, 77-87, 2012