Training Tapering

Let’s keep this simple; if you are a runner, biker, or any other long duration ultra athlete, this article is for you. In this short article, we will uncover what tapering can do for your performance in your competition.

What is Tapering?

Tapering is a period in a training cycle in which a person reduces the work load right before their competition or event.

How effective is a Taper?

The typical taper will increase performance around 3% [1][3]. This may not seem a lot, but quantifying it, you will see this makes a significant difference. In a marathon or other long distance event, one could see a drop of almost a minute off their time – that is a massive boost [1][3]. In a strength sport like powerlifting, a 184 kg (405 lb) squat would not only be easier to accomplish, but could, theoretically, be increased 2.3 – 4.5 kg (5 – 10 lbs) or more [3].

Practical Application

Tapering can be implemented in a variety of ways, but there is always a dramatic decline in volume. This decline in volume, for both steady state and high intensity performance has been seen to be most effective around an 85% decrease of normal training volume (some protocols have used 30 – 70% decrease). Meaning, if you normally do a bench press for 5 sets of 5 repetitions, doing 4 sets of 1 or 2 sets of 2 is as low as a person might get [3]. However, a taper can last anywhere from a week to several weeks with no decreases in performance or fitness; it seems that the general notion that doing “something” is, indeed, much better than doing nothing [3]. Even for steady state exercise, research has determined that switching to a high intensity modality for minimal volume for 6-7 days seems to generally show an increase in performance once you ramp back up for competition day [1]. It does seem that tapers need to be specific and well placed, because some taper protocols used may not show any benefit, aside from, potentially psychological reprieve [2]?

So, tapering for 1-3 weeks, reduce volume by 85% (if you taper a few weeks, stagger the reduction until the last week is 85% reduced), but the other element to this is to slightly increase intensity, and in steady state, to increase it substantially [1][3]. So, a lifter might add a few kg to the bar and lift it for far fewer repetitions and a steady state athlete would engage in sprints or some other high intensity exercise for just a few minute runs – nothing overly taxing.

Bottom line, tapering may seem like a joke, because it is just *that* much easier than your months of training up to that point, but it simply works, how? Read on.

Understanding the Physiology

Why does a taper help performance?

There are a number of reasons, with the first, and most obvious, being a replenishment of glycogen levels. This is likely less of an issue in strength sports, not because they are not glycolytic (glycogen dependent) events, but because the amount of glycogen used is typically not exhaustive in bouts and can be replenished significantly between training bouts. However, if volume is highly elevated and training is frequent, this may play a role [3][4]. In endurance exercise in the marathon range, those with little or intermediate levels of experience in their sport may be limited by glycogen in reaching the finish line, so an opportunity to keep active, but increase one’s glycogen storage capacity by decreasing volume, yet increasing intensity to focus (for a short time) on a glycolytic metabolism could contribute to having noticeably more robust glycogen levels compared to those who train into their event [3][5].

Interestingly, during a taper, for endurance athletes, while one might imagine a reprieve and recovery for type I fibers, there seems to be a substantial impact on the athlete’s type II fibers [3]. It seems that over those 1-3 weeks of taper, the fibers hypertrophy considerably – possibly due to a focus on high intensity training, but this means the muscle fibers are also more powerful and able to generate force – this could impact an athlete’s ability to recruit more explosive musculature when needed to pass other athletes. There is also some evidence that muscular damage is attenuated in instances of tapering without an increase in high intensity exercise, yet this has not been shown to translate to better event performance, so recovery is likely not a limiting issue [2]. In high intensity performers, like lifters and sprinters, the thought process is an attenuation of neuromuscular fatigue based on a potential depletion of acetylcholine, or even an increase in inhibitory signals of the central nervous system such as 5-HT, as well as inhibition of the motor units [7].

It is also possible that a taper can increase, in endurance athletes, citrate synthase activity (and likely others) enzyme activity, implying a better mitochondrial capacity to produce energy, and heightening the anaerobic threshold [1].

Summary

To recap, tapering works, and although it may not seem like much, but a 2-3% increase in performance across different athletic modalities can make a dramatic difference in competition. A taper typically follows two main rules: reduce volume, and maintain or slightly increase intensity of exercise, with a slightly different protocol for endurance athletes erring on the side of short bursts of intense training for 1-3 weeks prior to competition.

Author: Nicolas Verhoeven

References

[1] HOUMARD, J. A., SCOTT, B. K., JUSTICE, C. L., & CHENIER, T. C. (1994). The effects of taper on performance in distance runners. Medicine & Science in sports & Exercise, 26(5), 624???631. doi:10.1249/00005768-199405000-00016

[2] Child, R. B., Wilkinson, D. M., & Fallowfield, J. L. (2000). Effects of a Training Taper on Tissue Damage Indices, Serum Antioxidant Capacity and Half-Marathon Running Performance. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 21(5), 325-331. doi:10.1055/s-2000-3778

 

[3] Murach, K., & Bagley, J. (2015). Less Is More: The Physiological Basis for Tapering in Endurance, Strength, and Power Athletes. Sports, 3(4), 209-218. doi:10.3390/sports3030209

[4] Astorino, T. (n.d.). Glycogen and Resistance Training. Retrieved from https://www.unm.edu/~lkravitz/Article%20folder/glycogen.html

[5] Rapoport, B. I. (2010). Metabolic Factors Limiting Performance in Marathon Runners. PLoS Computational Biology, 6(10), e1000960. doi:10.1371/journal.pcbi.1000960

[6] The Neuromuscular System and Exercise. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://web.cortland.edu/buckenmeyerp/Lecture11.html


[7] TAYLOR, J. L., AMANN, M., DUCHATEAU, J., MEEUSEN, R., & RICE, C. L. (2016). Neural Contributions to Muscle Fatigue. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 48(11), 2294-2306. doi:10.1249/mss.0000000000000923

 

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