There are an infinite number of methods used to structure tapers. In addition, there are both intra- and inter-individual responses to different tapering protocols and coaches and athletes often use a trial and error approach to determine which tapering protocol is best suited to a specific athlete.
However, based on previous scientific research examining the effectiveness of tapering on subsequent endurance performance, the optimal tapering period should be between 8 – 14 days.
The preceding training load is a big determinant on the structure of the taper. Elite endurance athletes are generally exposed to larger training loads than recreational level athletes. Therefore, elite athletes might begin their taper two weeks before the event, while most recreational athletes will only require a taper of one week.
It is important to note that ALL athletes, no matter what level they compete at, will benefit from the inclusion on a taper.
When we begin working with a new athlete we firstly set up an annual plan that allows us to design their training program. The annual plan consists of all the events that the athlete is planning on competing in in that year and this allows us to structure how the training volume and intensity will change over the year to ensure that the athlete is in the best possible shape for their target events.
Most of the athletes will compete in more than one event per year and we will therefore include multiple tapers throughout the season. This allows us to ‘experiment’ with different lengths of tapers and ensure that we have a sound strategy as we approach a ‘goal’ event. Depending on the importance of the event and where it fits in in the training cycle, we might not include a taper at all, but rather use the race as a training session. Other events will have short tapers (~3 days) in order to flush out most of the acute fatigue from the preceding training weeks.
When the athlete is approaching a target event, we will use a two-week taper where we decrease the volume of the training, but keep the intensity at a moderate to high level. The high intensity is required to ensure that the athlete does not lose the training induced adaptations.
A typical pre-race (taper) week will look like this:
Day 1: REST – NO exercise!
Day 2: 1.5 – 2 hour easy ride at a LOW intensity and high cadence (>90 RPM)
Day 3: REST – NO exercise!
Day 4: Warm up for 30 minutes at a LOW intensity. Follow this with 4 x 4 minute intervals at an intensity corresponding to your functional (lactate) threshold. Rest (ride easy) for 10 minutes between each of the 4 minute intervals. Cool down for 30 minutes.
Day 5: REST – NO exercise!
Day 6: 1.5 – 2 hours easy ride at a LOW intensity with 5 x 2 minute accelerations to bring your heart rate up to your functional threshold for last 30 seconds of each acceleration (Use relatively hard gear and moderate cadence (70-80 RPM). Rest 5 min between each of the accelerations.
Day 7: Race day
During the taper period, your training volume will be reduced and therefore you may need to adjust your nutrient intake to prevent weight gain. However, we do not recommend that you avoid any of macro-nutrients (carbohydrates, fat and protein) during this period, but rather adjust the quantities appropriately.
Some symptoms of getting the taper wrong include ‘sluggish’ legs. Failure to keep the intensity up during the taper could result in feelings of tired or ‘sleepy’ legs. Athletes will mention that it took their legs a while to ‘wake up’. In addition, if the training load is too high during the taper or before the taper, fatigue could still be present on race day and this will obviously have a negative effect on performance, especially at the higher intensities.
About the author:
Benoit Capostagno completed his BSc degree (cum laude) specialising in the Sport Sciences at the University of Stellenbosch in 2006. He continued his studies at the University of Cape Town’s Research Unit for Exercise Science and Sports Medicine completing his honours with a first class pass in 2007. He is continuing his postgraduate work with his PhD at this same unit and is investigating training adaptation and fatigue in cyclists. He has been a consultant with the Sports Science Institute of South Africa’s High Performance Centre’s Cycling Division since 2009. In addition, Ben has been an active cycling coach with Science to Sport since 2010.