Whether the race in your sights is a 5K walk or a marathon, the goal of your training is to be at your best when the gun goes off. To optimize your performance, you will need to have an effective taper - the final portion of your preparation where you decrease your mileage. By understanding the science of tapering, and the role that rest plays in all forms of exercise, you can achieve your goals.
What is Tapering?
Tapering is a special training period immediately preceding the major competition during which the training stimulus is reduced in a systematic non-linear fashion to achieve a peak in performance. Optimal physiology, technique, and psychology are all outcomes of tapering. More scientifically, tapering produces a superior biological state characterized by perfect health, a quick adaptability to training stimuli, and a very good rate of recovery. The complete definition of taper is "a progressive non-linear reduction in the training load during a variable period of time, in an attempt to reduce the physiological and psychological stress of daily training and optimize sports performance." 1 Tapering has been shown to result in a performance improvement of 2-4% in most studies in laboratory and field performance tests as well as competition results.
Why Tapering Works
The thing to remember about training is that it is a continuous adaptation process. When you exercise, you cause microscopic tears in your skeletal muscles and release chemicals called "free radicals" that inhibit your body's performance. Your body interprets the damage as a sign that something has changed in its environment. From an evolutionary perspective, changes in the external setting require changes inside you, so your body repairs itself. But, just like the scientists who rebuilt the Six Million Dollar Man, your body will make you stronger and faster than you were before.
The primary objective of tapering is to decrease the training stress to allow for the body to recover and eliminate fatigue. When the training impulse is decreased, fatigue decreases more rapidly than fitness, and increased performance results from the increasing difference between the two factors. Thus, in a well-designed taper, the body becomes rested (with all the associated benefits) and the athlete's fitness level is well maintained. There are some amazing physiological adaptations that happen during a taper.
Researchers have also found increases in reticulocyte counts (new red blood cells) suggesting an increased erythropoiesis (red blood cell production) during taper. Tapering induces alterations in the contractile properties of single muscle fibres. The increased size, strength, velocity, and power of the muscle fibres results in improvements in whole body strength and power during the taper. Another interesting adaptation that has been shown in taper is the increase in eosinophils (believed to detoxify some of the inflammation inducing substances in the body and destroy allergen-antibody complexes, thus preventing the spread of inflammation) and lymphocyte (white blood cells that fight infection) cell counts. This suggests that there is an improvement in the body's capacity to resist illness during taper. And it's not just the body that is impacted. Tapering has been shown to have positive effects on the psychological state of athletes. Significant improvements in the Profile of Mood States, a questionnaire that measures tension, depression and anger, have been reported after 1 week of tapering, with significant improvements in total mood disturbance and fatigue. Other benefits include increased motivation, arousal, and psychological relaxation.
The catch is that if you don't allow for adequate rest on an ongoing basis and, in particular, at the end of your race training schedule, you will not give your body the time it needs to complete the upgrades. In effect, you will be doing the hard work and suffering the tear down process without reaping the rewards of recovery.
What the Science Tells Us
Let's take a look at the research. In one study, scientists found that college distance runners improved their performance by 2% through an 80% reduction in their mileage.1 In another study, runners not only saw a 3% boost in performance after a three week taper, their MHC IIa muscle fibres actually grew.2 These fibres are responsible for power and speed, which means that these athletes got stronger and faster by doing less work. The body's ability to repair itself is truly amazing!
For all of us, the three stars of our training program are volume (amount of mileage), intensity (pace) and frequency (how often you train). The research tells us that athletes who decrease their training volume, maintain their workout frequency and train at or above race pace during their taper experience significant performance improvements. There is also evidence that you should decrease your volume in a non-linear fashion: large reductions in mileage early on in your taper and smaller changes near the end. Keeping in mind that reducing your volume does not include spending the week before the race on the couch. That would put you into detraining - the dreaded loss of muscle strength and aerobic fitness.
Improve your Performance
Here's a quick summary of the key ideas outlined above and some additional tapering truths that experienced athletes and geeks in lab coats have confirmed (yes, I am one of those geeks):
- A two week taper is ideal for major events.
- Train frequently but reduce your overall volume in a non-linear fashion.
- Activate all your energy systems. That means some speed work, hills and easy running. The key is to do as little total work as possible to make sure you get rested, but you keep your metabolism working.
- Get plenty of sleep. This allows time for growth hormones to be released which support proper muscle repair.
- Make sure you are well hydrated so your body has the fluid it needs for all of its critical processes.
- Ensure muscle growth by eating foods that are high in protein.
- Promote red blood cell production by eating foods that are high in iron and also by consuming Vitamin C, which helps you absorb the iron. More red blood cells will improve your body's ability to carry oxygen, making physical exertion easier and more efficient.
- Avoid stress. Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, has a negative effect on the muscle repair process.
Applying the findings of science to your physical training will improve your performance, but you also need to be prepared for the mental experience of tapering. For example, you will have to resist the urge to slip in more miles as an outlet for your surplus energy. It's also possible you will feel a bit anxious about your decreased mileage. That's when you have to remind yourself that "less is more." Not to mention that a normal part of the taper phase is an inevitable workout when you find yourself dragging heavy legs and looking at your watch every few minutes. You need to trust the science that tells us tapering is good.
So that's what you need to know. As race day approaches, modify your training and remember to congratulate yourself on what is already an amazing achievement: living actively, working toward a goal and taking care of your body. All of which is an important part of living the vibrant and energetic life you and your body deserve.
1 Mujika I, Goya A, Ruiz E, Grijalba A, Santisteban J, Padilla S. (2002). Physiological and performance responses to a 6-day taper in middle-distance runners: influence of training frequency. Int J Sports Med 23: 367-373.
2 Luden N, Hayes E, Galpin A, Minchev K, Jemiolo B, Raue U, Trappe TA, Harber MP, Bowers T, Trappe S (2010). J Appl Physiol 108:1501-1509
Greg Wells Ph.D. (www.drgregwells.com, @drgregwells) is an Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto in the Faculties of Medicine and Kinesiology. He was the sport science analyst for the Olympic Broadcast Consortium during the 2010 & 2012 Games, and is the author of Superbodies: Peak Performance Secrets from the World's Best Athletes. Jessica Caterini is a member of the Human Physiology Research Unit in the Faculty of Kinesiology at the University of Toronto.