Whether you’re an elite athlete or recreational competitor, we all want to perform at our best when it matters most.
Training for peak performance involves a few basic components: 1) work hard, 2) eat right, and 3) rest. But it turns out that ‘peaking’ and being your best is more complex than just doing these three things well. To perform maximally, you also have to time these components just right – You have to understand how to taper.
Here’s what you need to know.
What is tapering?
Tapering is planned recovery training (rest!) before an event. In other words, a programmed taper is a formalized reduction in training volume for a specific period of time designed to enhance performance.
There are a lot of misconceptions regarding tapering, but with decades of research on the topic the science is pretty clear – It works, without a doubt.
Will tapering make me lose my fitness?
Many athletes worry that too much rest before their competition will make them lose strength and endurance, but research shows this just isn’t so (Reference 1). Fitness in endurance athletes (measured by maximal aerobic capacity, VO2max) is not lost, but may actually increase following taper.
Along those same lines, with strength/power athletes, short-term complete rest (about one week or less) does not reduce the force-producing capacity of muscle. Rather, the taper has been shown to actually improve strength (2).
That’s exactly what you’re after.
Performance gains after tapering
Tapering has been shown to increase performance in events ranging from swim sprints, cycling time trials, to triathlons.
For any event you can expect taper to increase your performance by about 2-3%. Sure, that doesn’t sound like much, but a few percent points add up FAST, especially during long bouts of high-intenstity endurance competition.
Additionally, an effective taper has been shown to increase bench press and squat performance by 2-3% in strength athletes (3) and throwing distance by 5-6% in track & field athletes (4).
How does it work?
We know that rest and full recovery are important, but why?
Rest effects all levels of physiology (whole body to the molecular levels). And, while we know that 1) rest is necessary for peak performance, and 2) tapering is a great way to rest effectivelybefore a competition, the exact mechanism of this “rest-related augmentation” have yet to be established for strength/power athletes.
With strength, performance increases in the early phase of the taper (one week or less) are likely caused by a reversal of neuromuscular fatigue (5). In other words, reducing training volume gives the neuromuscular system a chance to reach its full potential.
Recent research in endurance athletes has found an interesting cause for taper’s effectiveness at the muscle cell level (6, 7). You might predict that tapering primarily targets endurance athlete’s slow-twitch (aerobic) muscle fibers. However, research has shown that slow-twitch fibers are unaffected by tapering, but fast-twitch fibers, which are 5-8 times more powerful, significantly grow and show improved power output following rest (1).
This improved fast-twitch power may allow for a harder push to the finish line during competition.
How to taper
An effective taper can be implemented in various ways, and generally varies by sport. The data is pretty clear for endurance athletes, but less defined for strength/power athletes.
To peak for endurance competition you would generally want to reduce training volume by about 40-70% for 2-3 weeks prior to produce significant performance benefits. A recent review on strength athletes (similar to endurance) suggests significant performance benefits are attained with a 30-70% reduction in volume (within each training session or less overall training frequency) up to four weeks prior to competition, while maintaining or slightly increasing intensity (2).
There is no one perfect taper strategy for everyone, so you have to experiment to see what works best for you. However, the key element of tapering for any athlete is volume. To rest effectively, slash your volume while you maintain or slight increase training intensity prior to competition.
The results will speak for themselves.
Take home message
Tapering is an often overlooked, but it’s a critical component of your training.
Decades of research show that proper tapering 1) does not decrease fitness, 2) effectively improves performance in endurance and strength/power athletes, 3) works through several mechanisms (include neuromuscular and muscle cell adaptions).
Many athletes that train rigorously and eat right don’t actually reach their potential because they overlook one important component – planed rest! If you haven’t incorporated tapering into your pre-competition routine to date, it’s probably time to start.
If you’ve got training questions just leave them in the comments below. I’d love to help you out.