Ease off to speed up
In the week or couple of weeks prior to a race event, we are faced with a tricky choice of what to do. Some of you will no doubt think that it is about time to start training, given the proximity of the Big Race date, but your more serious aflete is faced with three choices: don't train at all, continue training as normal or continue to train at a cut-back level. Surely some tapering is required, but exactly what is optimum? Luckily, research has been done on this, and a good summary by Owen Anderson was found on the web, as follows. Owen tends to write a bit in the "Woman electrocuted by vibrator – Shock horror probe" style but, on the other hand, he seems to know his stuff.
Tapering – Critical review
What form of tapering works best in which sports? Here's a critical review of the research.
Athletes are gradually getting the idea that reducing their training ('tapering') prior to major competitions is a good idea, but major disagreements about exactly how to taper remain. There's considerable debate about whether one should reduce training volume (mileage or time) while preserving training intensity (speed) during a tapering period, trim intensity while maintaining volume, or simply cut back on both. There are also differences of opinion concerning how often one should train (frequency), how long the tapering period should actually last, and whether different competitive events require dissimilar tapers.
In addition to the confusion about the exact specifications of a tapering period, an additional problem is that athletes often worry that they might actually LOSE fitness during a period of reduced training. Are these athletes right? Is there some way to construct a taper which makes 'detraining' impossible? Fortunately, scientific research can answer many of these perplexing questions.
No fitness loss for up to 15 weeks
In 1981, University of Illinois scientists discovered an amazing fact: fitness was perfectly preserved in groups of tapering athletes for up to 15 WEEKS, even though frequency and total training volume were reduced by as much as 67 per cent! Many observers began to wonder why athletes insisted on training so much, since they would be just as fit - and probably considerably less injured - with a lower amount of training. The second question was as follows: if athletes don't lose anything when training is reduced, might it not be possible to actually GAIN something during diminished-training periods, if total training were cut by just the right amount and athletes were truly allowed to rest?
It's the intensity that counts
Follow-up research by the Illinois team revealed an important fact. Although carving away big chunks of frequency and volume during a tapering period usually produced no problems, reductions in intensity did lead to difficulties. In fact, almost as soon as running or cycling speed fell, fitness began to fall as well during the tapering period. It appeared that intensity was the key preserver of fitness during reduced training. This latter finding was not too surprising. After all, intensity is the best PRODUCER of fitness during regular training, too. Carrying out some intense training sessions is the optimal way both to produce and preserve fitness.
Is a one-third training cut enough?
Since athletes in the University of Illinois study had trimmed training volume to one-third of its normal level for 15 weeks without any repercussions and had experienced big physiological and competitive gains, a tapering consensus emerged. Knowledgeable coaches and athletes began to think that training volume should be cut to about one-third of its usual level during an optimal taper. However, several questions still hadn't been answered. No one knew much about intensity, for example. Since intensity was the key preserver of fitness during a tapering period, should average workout intensity actually increase during a taper, or should it simply be kept the same, or should it be slightly reduced in order to maximize rest? And what about frequency? Would it be wise to take complete days off from training during a tapering period, or was it best to train lightly every day?
And now-the 90 % cut!
Meanwhile, tapering research continued, and a real tapering breakthrough occurred in 1990, when a group at Mc Master University in Ontario, Canada asked a group of runners to trim their training by almost 90 % during their tapering period! Another group followed the usual strategy of cutting back by two-thirds, and yet a third group did absolutely no running at all during the tapering period, which was one week in duration for all three groups. An unusual feature of the 90 % cutback group's training during the tapering period was that almost all of the mileage consisted of fast 500-metre intervals at about one-mile race pace. In fact, the athletes ran five 500-metre intervals on the first day of the taper, four 500-metre intervals on the second day, three 500-metre intervals on day three, etc., and rested completely on day six. On the seventh day, they participated in performance tests.
Amazingly enough, endurance (measured as the length of time the runners could run at a quality pace) skyrocketed by 22 per cent in the 90 % cutback group after the tapering period but increased by only 6 per cent in the regular-taper group (the group which had performed only easy running at one-third of their normal volume). The do-nothing taper produced ... well ... nothing in the way of performance enhancement.
Why did the 90 % cutback taper work so well? First, these speedy taperers stockpiled more glycogen in their leg muscles, suggesting that perhaps the traditional, previously accepted, two-thirds diminishment of training volume in fact wasn't enough of a curtailment to allow muscles to completely restore their energy levels. In addition, levels of key energy-producing enzymes advanced to a magnificent extent in the 90 % taper group, indicating that almost-complete rest (with training comprising only 10 per cent of normal volume) was needed to give muscles a real chance to synthesise mega-quantities of important ergogenic chemicals. Finally, the 90 % taper runners had much higher blood volumes, compared to runners using the more conventional tapering strategy, which permits more blood to gush towards the leg muscles during strenuous exercise, bringing along bumper crops of oxygen and fuel.
An additional bonus for athletes using this 90 % plan is that this tapering training, consisting of intervals conducted at near race pace, prepares them for the exact neuromuscular requirements needed on race day. As a result, their nervous and muscular systems learn to handle this pace in an energy-efficient and relaxed manner, and mental confidence also soars. On race day, the athlete will settle into the pace almost without thinking. Exercise economy will improve, the feeling of mental effort associated with the pace will decline, and there will be little chance of going too fast or too slow during early moments of the competition.
Testing it in an actual race
The Canadian study was reinforced by research completed at East Carolina University in the United States in 1993. The East Carolina scientists actually tested their athletes in a 5 km running race and the results were spectacular. All athletes improved their personal-best 5 km performances, and the average improvement was a not-too-paltry 29 seconds, or over nine seconds per mile. As predicted, running economy also improved (by 6 %). Meanwhile, runners who had not followed the 90 % tapering scheme failed to enhance their performances at all.
Counteracting muscle soreness
One problem with the Carolina work, however, was that many runners experienced muscle soreness as the week went along. They simply weren't used to doing so much interval work! It's remarkable that they did so well despite being sore, and it's possible that they could have done even better without the muscle distress. Therefore, it's reasonable to suggest - if an athlete is vulnerable to muscle soreness - that these same intervals be conducted about once a week during the weeks leading up to competition, so that the muscles have time to adapt to the interval training. If that's not possible, the intervals could be completed every other day, rather than every day, during a tapering week, with a very short bout of light exercise replacing the missing interval days.
What about longer competitive events like the marathon for runners or multi-hour races for cyclists? Should they also be preceded by a low-volume, high-intensity, one-week taper? For the marathon, the answer in most cases is no. Scientific studies now confirm that most marathon trainees actually damage their leg muscles during their race preparations, more so than on race day, by doing too much mileage and not giving their leg muscles adequate time to recover from the micro-trauma that is an inevitable consequence of high-volume training. Since muscle trauma associated with high-mileage running takes about a month to repair, it's only logical that the tapering period for a marathon should last at least a month. Long-distance cyclists and swimmers have less muscle damage, so they may not need such an extended taper; perhaps two to two and a half weeks will be all that is necessary to restore muscle glycogen and synthesise abundant quantities of muscle enzymes. Likewise, participants in 'skill' sports such as tennis and squash can probably get by with just a seven- to 10-day taper before a major competition.
The amazing benefits of tapering
To conclude, tapering works by producing an incredible array of positive changes for athletes, including augmented glycogen stores, increased aerobic enzymes, expanded blood plasma, upgraded economy, better repair of muscle and connective-tissue trauma, improved neuromuscular coordination and heightened mental confidence. One reason that optimal tapering works so exceedingly well - in the athletes who really carry it out - is that most athletes probably compete while they're still tired from their previous training. These athletes haven't given themselves an adequate chance to recover from their strenuous training, and therefore their muscles can't function at the highest-possible level on race day. When these athletes try a real taper, many of them reach their true potential for the first time in their lives.
Non-tapered athletes are the victims of an all-too-popular belief in sports, which is that good training consists of little more than very, very hard work. This approach fails to take into account the reality that great training is always a combination of work AND rest. Without appropriate rest, the human body simply cannot fully adapt to training. While putting together an optimal training schedule, an athlete must consider the rest days and periods just as carefully as the hard-training times. Otherwise, he/she will always compete in a sub-optimal state.
That brings up an important follow-up point. Since appropriately constructed tapering can produce such incredibly positive results, and since many athletes train far too much, with too little recovery, why not include tapering periods not just before races but as a regular part of the overall training programme? This would lead to big upswings in fitness, not just before competitions, but at regular intervals during training. The timing of such tapering would depend on the intensity and volume of an athlete's schedule, but - at the very least - the final five to seven days of each month should be made light enough to 'consolidate' all the potential gains which can accrue from the first 21-25 days of regular training.
The bottom line is that tapering is very, very good for you. If you're aggressive with your tapering - carving away big chunks of your usual training volume while maintaining reasonable amounts of high-intensity exercise - you will usually be able to carve away large chunks from your race times as well.