The Science of the Taper

I’m ashamed to say I write training plans and beyond to ‘rest up’ and ‘have fresh legs’ which makes sense I’m not really sure why athletes taper at the end of a plan. I do know that it is widely considered necessary for the full marathon and beyond and debatable at the half. But other than that I only have personal experience with taper time. That experience is boy does it work, but WHY does it work? I write a mini taper into all of my plans starting with the 10k because a rest at the end is nice and I think it’s good practice once you run a 10k there’s a good chance you’ll be tackling the half next! So let’s dive in to the scientific literature and look at the science of the taper! Some of the data we’ll be talking about comes from running but also from other sports as well. In the same vein I might be talking about running but this information applies to all sports too.

What is a taper

A taper is a period of time most typically two weeks, before your race where you cut back your training milage and or frequency pretty dramatically. Usually you cut back by about half the first week and a bit more the second week. This might mean, for example that if you were running 5 days a week and 50 km you might run three times for a total of 25 km the first week and twice for a total of 15 km the second week. That’s just a pretty ‘typical’ example but is it the right amount? Why do we even taper and does it work?

Tapering in combination with race day nerves can make an athlete a bit nutty and hard to be around. If you’ve done it you know! I wanted to pass on my top tip for minimizing that aspect of the taper which is not scientifically proven. That is to tackle a bigger project during taper to fill your newfound free time with rather than just worry. Things like organizing your office right down to the filing cabinets, stocking your freezer with a month of homemade lunches or starting a new garden. Something at lest somewhat physical, busy making and that on the surface engages your brain. Obsess about that and not race day!

Do tapers work

Yes they do both in terms of performance and measurable physiological effects. Lets start with the measurable effects in the body first. When cyclists completed 14 day tapers reducing the time they spent training or the intensity they trained at muscle biopsies showed measurable improvements in type 1 and type 2 muscle fibers compared to the control group who kept up the same training level. (Neary et al., 2003). These muscle adaptions have been confirmed by similar studies but also have shown performance benefits as well. A similar study compared 4 day and 8 day taper periods in cyclists and found that VO2 max was increased in both groups. The study also found that maximal power output increased in both taper periods by 27 watts in both groups compared to athletes that kept training. In the group that kept training maximal power output actually went down 22 watts. (Neary et al., 1992). There wasn’t a big difference in the performance indicators between the short taper period and the longer period meaning that even if you’ve skipped some of your training program along the way reserving the last few days at least for rest will still reap rewards on race day!

Across studies tapers show a variety of changes in the bodies of athletes. Tapers can increase the level of oxygen uptake possibly via increased blood and red cell volume, haemoglobin, haematocrit, reticulocytes and haptoglobin, and decreased red cell distribution width. All of those changes taken together suggest an increase in performance. Tapers also tend to increase your peak blood lactate concentration meaning you can push harder on race day. Muscle glycogen levels can increase as does calcium retention. Blood creatine rinse levels tend to go down which suggests relief from stress is occurring. Muscle strength and power tends to go up dramatically during a taper probably due to increases in fiber size, contraction strength and an increase in the activity of oxidative enzyme activity. (Mujika et al., 2004). All together that’s pretty great proof that tapers do work!

Personally I think it’s really, really cool that we can see changes in certain enzymes in the muscle fibers but most athletes really just care about the results! In one study of triathletes showed improvements both in maximal power output on the bike and about a minute off the 5k run (Zarkadas et al, 1995). Tapering has been shown to improve performance in endurance runners, sprinters, cyclists, triathletes and swimmers just to name a few (Bishop and Edge, 2005). Overall tapering usually increases race day performance by about 3% (Mujika and Padilla, 2003).

Designing the perfect taper

Remember that study of cyclists that completed a 14 day taper in the last section well it turns out there were more detectable changes in muscle fibers when intensity was reduced compared with just reducing duration. The times they posted on a 40 km time trial after the taper period correlated strongly with the changes found in each athletes muscle biopsies over that time. (Neary et al., 2003). That means that we should be mindful to not go hard even if we are feeling great on our workouts during a taper phase. Take it easy ya’ll!

But what sort of taper works best. In researching for this post I actually learned that there are different sorts of tapers, who knew? There are some sub groups as well but it turns out but tapers can be linear, exponential or step wise. I created this handy graphic to help explain it. Well it turns out that there are some differences in results. When Iron man triathletes completed each type of taper for the same time and reducing to the same volume the results were much better in linear and exponential reductions in volume. Actually no gains were detected in athletes that just reduced to a lower volume and stayed there (step wise). The best results (a 74 second improvement on the run and 34 watts) was seen in the exponential group while a 46 second reduction on the run and a 23 watt increase was seen in the linear group (Zarkadas et al, 1995). I think that means that we should either follow the exponential or linear models. Sure exponential seems a little better but the linear model still works. But… we might all want to avoid just turning all of our runs the same percentage shorter all at once. That could mean a longer taper period where every run gets progressively shorter. Other studies have validated the result that exponential tapers seem to be best (Banister et al., 1999).

Psychological effects of tapering

If you’ve ever tapered before an event you might think that it’s an exercise in psychological torture. At least it is for me. All that spare time, no outlet and self doubt means tapering athletes can be let’s just say difficult to deal with. But there are some positive psychological effects for tapering athletes too. When I was reading this stuff I was like “I guess that’s true…” During a taper athletes suffer less mood disturbances (really?), feel more confident in their conditioning and are more relaxed and have improved sleep (Mujika et al., 2004). Some studies also show a reduction in blood cortisone levels (Zehsaz et al., 2011) and since cortisone is a stress hormone this indicates that athletes might be less stressed physically and psychologically overall.

Based on what I’ve learned and read in researching this article it is clear that tapers do lead to better race day performance. It turns out science says tapers are a thing! If you’re like me and tapering increases your anxiety take heart IT IS worth it! When else can you get 3% better at something with less effort? Even if you only have time for a short taper in your training it’s still worth it. How do you feel about a tapers in training? Is it relaxing or stress inducing for you? What did you learn about tapers? Leave it in the comments below!

 Read what I read:

Banister et al, 1999. Training theory and taper: validation in triathlon athletes. European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology.

Bishop and Edge, 2005. The effects of a 10-day taper on repeated-sprint performance in females. The journal of science and medicine in sport.

Mijika et al., 2004. Physiological Changes Associated with the Pre-Event Taper in Athletes. The journal of sports medicine.

Mujika and Padilla, 2003. Scientific Bases for Precompetition Tapering Strategies. The journal of physical fitness and performance.

Neary et all, 1992. The effects of a reduced exercise duration taper programme on performance and muscle enzymes of endurance cyclists.

Neary et al., 2003. Effects of Taper on Endurance Cycling Capacity and Single Muscle Fiber Properties. Medicine and science in sports exercise. European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology.

Zarkadas et al., 1995. Modelling the Effect of Taper on Performance, Maximal Oxygen Uptake, and the Anaerobic Threshold in Endurance Triathletes.

Zehsaz et al., 2011. Effect of tapering period on plasma hormone concentrations, mood state, and performance of elite male cyclists. The European journal of sports science.

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