Now that Christmas and the New Year are out of the way, the indoor season is quickly coming around. For a lot of people, especially sprinters, this provides a good opportunity to test their speed early on after undergoing a big block of training pre-Christmas. Depending on how seriously an athlete is approaching the indoor season, it may or may not be appropriate to consider a taper before a competition, especially the key competition. After the indoor season, athletes generally go back to a period of higher training stress, before the outdoor competition season occurs. As the outdoor season is generally the focus of the athlete’s year, pretty much every athlete will undergo a taper at some point. The purpose of this article to review some of the research on what to do when tapering for competition.
First, it’s probably a good idea to define what a taper is. The taper is a reduction in training load to allow the athlete to peak. Peaking refers to the improvement in athlete performance following this reduction in overall training load, the taper. Athletes generally aim to peak for 1-2 races per season. As an athlete my main two were the national championships, and then the World/Olympic/European Championships after that. I had to taper for the National Championships to qualify for that year’s global/regional championship, then build up training load again, before tapering off in preparation for the major championships.
Why do we need this reduction in training load? Well, in order to elicit physiological adaptations through training, the body has to be stressed through load. Without adequate stress, there won’t be sufficient adaptations, and the athlete won’t improve. We can’t start the taper too early. Otherwise we will start to see detraining, which will lead to a reduction in performance. There is also something called the delayed training effect, or supercompensation. This refers to the effect that recovery has on various physiological variables to do with performance, and fatigue and training load are an important aspect of this. When training, we accumulate fatigue, which leads to a reduction in performance.
However, once training load is reduced, fitness and performance levels “rebound” above pre-training levels – the supercompensation effect. Performance is only elevated for a short period, however before it begins to drop off and additional stimulus from training is required. A final point to add is that the harder the training before the taper period, the longer the taper period needs to be before this supercompensation effect occurs. If prior training load is low, then 3-5 days may be sufficient; however if prior training load is high, up to three weeks may be required. This has implications for the position of the taper within the competitive season. If the athlete is competing a large amount before the major competition, then overall training load will likely be low, meaning that only a short taper is required. However, if the athlete is emerging from a heavy training block, a longer taper should be programmed.
Not only are the positive effects of a taper physiological; a taper can also have important psychological effects. The mood of athletes generally improves with a taper, as does their Profile of Mood States (POMS) score, indicating that motivation and other important variables are improving, further enhancing the chances of competitive success.Tapering for speed-power events can have important psychological effects. Click To Tweet
But does tapering work? For sprint performance, this is a difficult question to answer, as most of the research is done in endurance athletes. One of the reasons for this is that the physiological changes to training in endurance athletes are sometimes more pronounced than in power athletes, but also because the world leading researcher on tapering methods, Inigo Mujika, bases most of his research on endurance athletes. In a meta-analysis of 27 studies, it was found that tapering did improve performance, particularly when some specific training recommendations were followed (which we will come to later).
In a study on strength athletes, the utilization of a taper increased strength by 2%, compared to a 9% loss in those who just completely rested. In a group of rugby league players, the use of a taper improved vertical jump performance, 3RM squat and bench press, and also 10m sprint performance.
Another important aspect of this study is that performance in these measures was actually decreased followed a block of heavy training, illustrating the importance and use of a taper. There is also some evidence that a taper allows for an increase in fast-twitch muscle fibers and also muscle cross-sectional area which is obviously going to be of interest to those competing in speed power events. This is especially important when you consider that some research illustrates that resistance training can change fibre type from type IIx to IIa, although this effect is reversed with a taper. In fact, not only might the effect be reversed, but there may be an “overshoot” effect, such that as the result of a taper an individual has a greater amount of type IIx muscle fibers. This is evidence of the importance of a taper to speed-power athletes such as sprinters.
How to Taper
So, if we know that tapering works, and can improve performance, the next thing to consider is how to implement a taper. As previously stated, we need to reduce training load, and this can be done through manipulation of volume, intensity, and frequency of training.
A taper can either be step-wise, or progressive. A step-wise taper is an immediate reduction of training load to a set level for the duration of the taper. For example, in a 10-day step-wise taper, I might reduce my training load to 40% on day one, and maintain it there for the whole ten days. A progressive taper, as the name suggests, takes a much more progressive approach; on day one I might train at 90% load, then 80%, and so on, until I reach the desired intensity, whatever that may be. Within a progressive taper, the reduction in training load can be linear or exponential. In a linear progressive taper, the training load reduces in a linear fashion, perhaps by 10% per day. In an exponential progressive taper, the reduction is not linear. It can drop off quickly to begin with (a fast decay), or slower (slow decay). A great review of these methods can be found in this paper by Mujika. Generally, some progressive taper is thought to maintain performance to a greater extent.
Next up, we need to consider how to manipulate this training load. As sprinting is a high-intensity exercise, it seems logical that intensity is kept very high during training. This ensures a high transfer from training to competition, particularly with regards to coordination and muscle firing. Certainly, we don’t see many sprinters preparing for a competition by focusing on jogging, so intensity must be kept high. The same has been reported for endurance activities, with research showing that intensity shouldn’t be compromised, but volume can be.
If intensity is to be maintained (or even increased), then there must be a reduction in volume. This can occur by either training less frequently, or by doing less work per session. The research in endurance athletes appears to show that a reduction in frequency may not improve performance during a taper and so less work per session appears to be the way forward, particularly if the intensity is kept high. The previously mentioned meta-analysis shows that an overall reduction of between 41-60% leads to the greatest performance improvements, and so this seems like a reasonable goal.
One final thing to consider is training time; there is some evidence to suggest that training at the time of competition is beneficial to performance, so, if possible, it may be sensible to attempt to do this. For various reasons this was never particularly possible for me, usually because the competition was late evening, and so I felt that it might have a negative impact on my sleep patterns if I had to train at that time, particularly if I was using caffeine.
To illustrate the programming on a taper, I’m going to give some examples of real life tapers I have come across. The first is mine from the 2011 World Championships, where I was competing in the relay:
|-10||Run – 4 x 50m from blocks (10 minutes)|
Bulgarian Split Squat 3 x 6 x 70%
Bench Press 3 x 3 x 85%
Hang Snatch 7 x 1 x 90%
Core circuit Final “heavy” lifting session 9 days before. Note intensity is high
|-7||Run – 3 x 120m (15 minutes recovery) All done at maximum intensity|
Bench Press 3 x 2 x 90%
Box Jumps 6 x 3
Hang Snatch 3 x 5 x 50% Note low overall volume but high intensity and speed of movement
|-4||Relay practice – 4 x changeovers (45m running distance) All at maximum intensity to simulate race changeovers|
|-2||Relay practice – 4 x changeovers (45m running distance) All at maximum intensity to simulate race changeovers|
|-1||Warm up and mobility|
|0||Race Day! 2 x 4x100m relay races DNS in the final (standard for a GB relay team)|
As you can see, the intensity is kept high throughout. There is quite a pronounced drop off in training load for me, achieved by the elimination of accessory/supplemental exercises, and also an increase in rest days from one every six days to one every 2 days initially, and then one every other day in the final run. This taper came off a three-week loading block after that national championships, in which the goal was to regain some strength and training volume lost during the competitive season. Frequency is reduced from my typical training programme (6 days per week), which does go against some of the recommendations for the research – however, I felt this reduction in training frequency was useful. It certainly allowed me to maintain intensity in the key sessions.
The second example is a fairly famous one; Ben Johnson’s pre-Canadian Championships 1987 taper, where he ended up running 9.98 for the 100m.
4 x 30m blocks
80-100-120-150 high intensity
|-9||10 x 200m tempo|
4 x 30m blocks
1 x 120m (submax)
|-7||2 x 10 x 100m tempo|
4 x 30m blocks
1 x 80m (submax)
|-4||10 x 100m tempo|
|-3||4 x 30m blocks|
You can see a few differences between the two examples here – most notably is that Ben Johnson utilised tempo during this period (I never did much tempo), and we also don’t have his weight training sessions, if indeed he did any. You can, however, see the similarities. The final hard session is ten days before the race, and this is followed up by a large reduction in overall volume, but a maintenance of intensity.
In conclusion, we can see that tapers are well utilised in high-level athletes to improve performance. As a starting point, intensity should be maintained during training, with the focus on an overall reduction in the volume of training. This can be achieved through shorter sessions or fewer repetitions and sets, or through less frequent training. The psychological aspect of the taper is also important, as athletes will see an improvement in mood.
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