Tapering for a race can ensure your potential is shown on the day it matters. It allows all your preparation to come to a head and the progress you have made to deliver your best performance. A taper can last a varied amount of time depending on many factors. The race distance, race importance and training in build up can all dictate how long your taper period might last. Typically they will last between 7 and 14 days.
Many athletes employ a similar strategy to their taper as their rest or deload week. It is important to acknowledge that a taper and deload are different. While they share some similarities the end goal is going to be different.
How a taper works.
A taper is when the body overcompensates for a short period of time, allowing you to maximise your capacity for heightened level of performance. We create this compensation by applying stress over time and allowing the body adapt. Increasing stress will lead to an accumulation of fatigue. If we rapidly reduce volume from our regular training then we avoid the build up of fatigue. The process of adaptation can lag in timescale and your body continues to upregulate function to meet increasing demands.
Taper Vs. deload
The mechanism of both are the same. You are trying to elicit supercompensation. With the taper you are trying to promote performance. With a deload you are trying to promote freshness. A deload is followed by another block of progressive training whereas a taper is followed by an event. The event may then be followed by a period of rest. There is a relative end point to a taper whereas a deload is more like a midpoint in a training plan. This subtly changes how you carry things out.
How to taper
Similar to a deload, a taper requires a reduction in training volume. Where they differ is in the changes to training frequency and intensity. Frequency should be greater than that of a deload and only decreases in the later stage of the taper. This is important to maintain familiarity and physiological capacity. This is particularly important in technical disciplines like swimming or weightlifting.
Training intensity must remain in high order to sustain level of ability and pacing. A reduction in intensity is likely to result in a loss of feel and awareness of race pace. In addition mechanisms at high intensity efforts begin to diminish quite quickly so they must remain in the taper phase so that there is no loss in capacity.
Volume must be reduced in the form of durations. One could train regularly at race pace but it would be for significantly shorter durations. A marathon runner may use intervals of 20mins at race pace as opposed to hour long runs for example. The time spent at intensity is significantly reduced.
How does a successful taper work
When you have progressively trained for months prior to your event you build a certain level of fatigue resistance and resilience. This is the concept of building capacity. This allows you to cope with greater amounts of training as your plan progresses. If you train within your capacity then fatigue will not accumulate to the same extent. You can easily recover and manage the stress. This allows you to stay topped up on performance without taxing the body. If you have not progressively built capacity beforehand then it is difficult to taper. The best taper will see a reduction in volume to stay within capacity but the frequency and intensity will still remain high but manageable.
How should your taper look
Your taper should be dictated by the event itself and your prior training. Longer distance events may require more aerobic capacity which can be sustained for longer periods. A taper phase can be quite long as a result. Shorter maximal events rely more on neuromuscular and anaerobic capabilities. These have a short lifespan so tapers for these events should be shorter in length.
The amount of training you have completed in build up to the taper will also dictate how it is structured. If your average training week is 16hrs of training then a taper week may be 8hrs. By comparison if your average week is 8 hours of training then your taper may only be 4 hours of training. The key is to have a significant reduction in volume.
Tapers, just like overall training should be progressive in nature. They should also be relatively linear. This means over the course of a taper you gradually reduce the duration of sessions. The change is not sudden but rather a ramp down towards competition.
Focus on what’s important.
Fretting over a taper is not beneficial. The training leading up to an event is important and that’s when the fitness is built. Races will not be made in a taper phase but they can certainly be broken. Tapers are about being smart and reasonable. It is not the time to chase last minute progress. It is the time to turn hard work, “Money in the bank” into reality. Less is more during a taper. You simply want to make sure performance is maintained and no fatigue is accumulated.
In addition to changes in training volume you may want to employ a few performance boosting strategies in the taper phase. The simple strategies are the ones to focus on as it’s not the time for any complex rituals.
Sleep is important, but sleeping patterns should be similar to your regular routine. A common mistake is to go to bed earlier and get more sleep in the days leading up. This is more likely to disturb your sleep pattern than help. Just avoid late nights and irregular patterns or sleep environments.
Nutrition is very important in the week leading up to competition. This is especially true where pre race weigh ins may occur. Generally you need to ensure that your glycogen stores are full and you are optimally hydrated. Don’t experiment with new or problematic foods in this period. Keep it simple and lean towards increasing carbohydrate intake in the final stages of the phase. Monitor hydration and don’t over do it, just avoid any major nutrition disasters rather than trying to live the perfect life in the final days. Some supplements may improve performance on race day but ensure they are things you have tested out of competition so you know you can tolerate them.
Mental preparation is also key and is definitely helped by experience. Competing is meant to be the fun part. As mentioned earlier the money is in the bank. Now is the time to focus solely on executing strategy only. Worry about results during the training sessions in the months prior, when your motivation may need some inspiration. Take this time to relax and have faith in your training. This can help massively with nerves, and keep your mind on the things that will actually matter when the start gun sounds.
Effective tapers are simple in theory but difficult in practice. They come at a time where your decisions may be affected by pre race stress and nerves. You should plan your taper strategy in advance and practice it with less important races. Experience is vital in having an effective taper. Just remember it is not a time to be perfect, rather it’s a time to avoid any disasters which undo the work that’s already been done.
If you need help planning a taper, don’t hesitate to contact us or raise the issue with your coach. Often an outside opinion can steer you onto what is not always very obvious in the midst of everything.
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