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Pre - Race Tapering


It is generally accepted that an athlete will produce a superior race performance when he or she is in an optimally trained condition while also being in an optimal state of rest and low fatigue. By the same token it is usually considered that this condition is achieved through a process of “tapering” or “peaking”. But what is this process and how can it best be achieved?

We can define tapering as a special training period immediately preceding the major competition, during which the training stimulus is reduced in a systematic fashion to achieve a peak in performance.

One of the most widely respected researchers in this field has defined tapering as “………a progressive non-linear reduction in the training load during a variable period of time, in an attempt to reduce the physical and psychological stress of daily training and optimise sports performance.” (Inigo Mujika).

The function of training is to create fatigue, which, followed by a period of rest, creates a greater “fitness” (muscular, cardiovascular, neurological and even psychological) through the process of super compensation (as described in “Weigert’s Law of Supercompensation” and in the “General Adaptation Syndrome” of Hans Selye). This is a long-term process, since fitness as we all know very well, but tend to forget, accumulates over a period of time. On the contrary fatigue accumulates quickly over a short period of time. For example if we perform three consecutive days of hard workouts we will produce a great amount of fatigue but only a small increase in fitness. During the pre-race period of peaking the aim is to reduce fatigue, and this takes place through various mechanisms that we shall examine shortly. At the same time there is no need to increase fitness, however there is a need to maintain fitness.

Reducing Fatigue

By diminishing the degree of training stress the organism is allowed to recover and fatigue will be decreased. This takes place through the following physiological systems.

Haematological

During a properly conducted taper period, parameters such as haemoglobin (oxygen carrying capacity of blood) and haematocrit (the percentage of red blood cells) together with the volume of red blood cells all increase. This produces a significant increase in aerobic capacity, particularly important for endurance athletes. The increase in blood parameters may also help improve the buffering capacity of the blood through increased haemoglobin levels, which can increase the ability of the body to tolerate lactic acid

Hormonal

A study by Aldercreutz et al. (Effect of training on plasma anabolic and catabolic steroid hormones and their response during physical exercise.) investigated the changes in anabolic hormones (hormones that help build and repair tissue) and catabolic hormones (stress hormones that cause damage to tissues) during training and taper. In particular they noted a significant correlation between the improvement in testosterone (anabolic)/cortisol (catabolic) ratio and improvement in performance during a four week taper.

Additional hormonal and anti stress benefits may accrue during the tapering period through the use of sports psychology techniques such as progressive relaxation and visualisation.

Neuro-muscular

Tapering has positive effects on muscle contractile properties. However the effects appear to be greater in Type 2 (fast twitch) muscle fibre than in Type 1 (slow twitch muscle fibre. This would, therefore, seem to be more applicable to power or rapid movement athletes, however it should not be forgotten that power is an important factor in climbing and descending. It has also been shown that the organism is able to call upon Type 2 muscle fibres to assist tiring Type 1 muscle fibres. In any case it seems advisable to stop any weight resistance type training in the 10-15 day period before competition.

Immune Response

Another significant adaptation that has been shown to occur in response to a taper is the increase in the cell counts for white blood cells, specifically eosinophils (detoxifying agents) and lymphocyte (white blood cells that fight infection). This suggests that there is an improvement in the body’s capacity to resist illness during taper.

Psychological effects

There may also be psychological effects during the tapering phase. A 1998 study carried out by Hooper et al at the University of Queensland, Australia on the effects of tapering on swimmers found that significant improvements in the “Profile of Mood States” occurred during tapering including reduced tension, depression and anger along with lessened mood disturbance and fatigue. A more recent study by Murach and Bagley at the University of San Francisco,“Less Is More: The Physiological Basis for Tapering in Endurance, Strength, and Power Athletes – 2015”, also concluded that “……tapering improves mood state and decreases perception of effort in conjunction with improved performance. While more difficult to quantify, the psychological benefits that taper may afford prior to competition should not be understated.”

The “Intensity” effect

It is therefore clear that in order to achieve the best physiological and psychological improvements on race day, and consequently a better performance, it is necessary to reduce fatigue, and the best way to reduce fatigue is obviously that of reducing the training load. However a significant reduction in training load will also negatively affect the “fitness” that has been achieved up to that point, and in a greater degree proportionately to the length of the tapering period. This conundrum was first investigated by a group at the McMaster University, Ontario, Canada in their study, “Physiological effects of tapering in highly trained athletes, 1992.” They had three groups of athletes perform different tapering protocols – a rest only taper (ROT), a low intensity moderate volume (LIT) group and a high intensity low volume group (HIT). Remarkably the HIT group showed a 22% increase in endurance, the LIT group improved by 6% while the ROT group stayed exactly the same. The better results achieved by the HIT group were due to four main factors – they had more glycogen in leg muscles, their density of red blood cells was higher, blood plasma was higher and muscular enzyme activity in leg muscles was greater. The conclusion and recommendation of the research group was that “Training intensity should be maintained, or even slightly increased. Such intense training is probably necessary to preserve some of the training associated adaptations that may be lost with the marked reduction in training volume.”

The importance of intensity was highlighted by one of the foremost researchers in the field of tapering from sport, Inigo Mujika, in his 2010 paper “Intense Training: the key to optimal performance before and during the taper” – Medicine & Science in Sports, in which he states “High-intensity training can also maintain or further enhance training-induced adaptations while athletes reduce their training before a major competition. On the other hand, training volume can be markedly reduced without a negative impact on athletes' performance. Therefore, the training load should not be reduced at the expense of intensity during the taper.”

Reduction of Volume & Timing

We have seen above that the key elements of an effective taper are the reduction of overall volume along with the maintenance of similar or even greater intensity within the remaining volume.

There are two possibilities for reducing volume. One is that of reducing the frequency of training, for example only 4 training sessions a week rather than 6. The other is that of reducing the time and distance of each individual training session.

Frequency

In a paper published in Sports Medicine 1994, “Effects of Taper on Swim Performance”, authors Houmard and Anderson-Johns, found that “Training frequency should be reduced by no more than 50%; a more conservative estimate would be to reduce frequency by approximately 20%. One of the main reasons given for the more conservative reduction of just 20% was the “loss of feel” for the water as declared by the athletes in the study. The question is clearly that the reduction in training frequency must be balanced with the need to practise optimal motor patterns and technique. This is probably more important in a sport, highly dependent upon technique, such as swimming than in running. In any case it is possible to recommend that an optimal reduction in frequency would be between these two parameters of less 20% and less 50%.

Volume

A 1993 study by David Martin et al, “The Effects of Interval Training and a taper on cycling performance” showed that reductions of 50–70 per cent in total training volume appeared to maintain or improve training-induced adaptations in cyclists. Another study by Mujika “Physiological Responses to a 6-Day Taper in Middle-Distance Runners: Influence of Training Intensity and Volume” reported benefits with reductions of up to 75 per cent in total training volume In general, endurance athletes should have less reduction in training volume than sprinters, or strength and power athletes. Thus, the recommendation is to reduce training volume between 50–75%.

In all cases it has been shown that a gradual reduction of the volume is the optimal solution whereby, for example in the case of a two week taper, the total volume is reduced by 30-40% during the first week and then further reduced by a similar amount during the second week.

Duration of the Tapering Period

The duration of the tapering period is heavily influenced by the type of sport and the length or duration of the event to be undertaken. Other considerations regard each individual athlete, including age, sex (males generally require longer tapering periods due to higher levels of muscle mass) and physiological response. The 2007 paper “Effects of Tapering on Performance: A Meta-Analysis”, Bosquet, Montpetit, Arvisais, Mujika suggested that optimal results could be achieved through “A 2 week taper during which training volume is exponentially reduced by 41–60%.”

However Mujika has also written that, “Our studies indicate that an efficient taper may last between one and four weeks. The optimal duration does not depend on age, experience or event distance. It depends on each athlete's adaptation and recovery profile. Some athletes recover faster than others; some have long-lasting training adaptations, whereas some others detrain quickly.

Summary

Optimal tapering results have been found to take place with a 20 to 50% reduction in frequency, between 50 to 75% reduction in volume and a duration of between one to four weeks, while the intensity of training should remain the same or even at a slightly higher level. This is a huge variation and clearly shows that tapering is more of an art than a science. It is up to each individual athlete, alone or in conjunction with a coach, to experiment and find the optimal combination for their characteristics and the particular event to be undertaken.

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