The tapering phase will often determine whether you go into an event under cooked, over cooked or just right. Plus, it can even result in fitness gains of 3%. So, what is the most effective way of tapering?
Tapering can be summarised by the saying 'less is more'. What tapering specifically means is when training volume declines for a specific period prior your main event and improves performance across a broad range of exercise modes. Tapering is also a critical phase which allows the body to recovery from heavy training loads.
Murach et al, (2015)
The aim of a tapering is to enhance recovery while maintaining fitness. This can be manipulated across four dimensions, length, frequency, intensity, and volume. However, tapering is not designed to achieve additional adaptations or fitness gains.
The length of a taper varies between sports, generally, the longer your event the longer the taper. For example, a marathon may require a two-week taper, whereas a short time trial (< 16km) may only need to be 4 days.
On the other hand, the frequency of training should remain the same in highly trained individuals and technique-based sport. For example, in a triathlon context maintaining swimming frequency should be considered the priority. Although, for beginner athletes, frequency should decline by 30-50%.
Furthermore, studies have shown decreasing training intensity (i.e. working in < zone 2) while maintaining frequency and volume is not an effective taper. As a result, current studies are suggesting in order to maintain fitness and decrease fatigue, training intensity must remain the same but frequency and volume declines.
Lastly, the volume of training is arguably the most important when dropping fatigue. The decline in volume as a percentage varies between studies however, with most falling within a 40-60% range. In addition, training volume should decline exponentially instead of a step-decline or slow linear decline.
The cumulative fatigue that builds up due to high training volumes can be the consequence of many factors, including the stress of daily training. However, this is also the result of depleted muscle glycogen stores. This results in expanding muscle glycogen stores which is beneficial for carbohydrate loading.
Progressively, when training volume declines, fast-twitch muscle fibres respond drastically (peak force can increase by 11% as a consequence of the tapering phase), resulting in an increased exercise economy. The process of fast-twitch fibres hypertrophy (enlargement) can be enhanced with power strength training in the previous training cycle.
Below is an example of how to taper an intermediate 10km runner. The training frequency and intensity remains the same as the previous phase. In addition, the number of intervals from Wednesday's Week 1 workout also declines by 1. In turn, helping drop fatigue and maintain fitness.
The 'less is more' approach is an effective way of tapering and can increase performance by up to 3%. However, this is dependent on three main factors, length, frequency, intensity, and volume. Finally, for best effect, training volume should decline exponentially between 40-60%.