Take It Easy

By January 22, 2016 December 9th, 2016 Athletic Performance, Endurance Sports

Traditionally thought of as a pre-race strategy to significantly improve performance, tapering can also help you get more from long and hard workouts while reducing the risk of overtraining

Your training is progressing well and with passing weeks your long workouts get longer. Total weekly hours are nearing their highest level. Your MAF Test, a regular sub-max evaluation, improves as you get faster at the same heart rate.

Regardless of your training philosophy, as you build to the big race or start of the competitive season, how can you best manage the increased training without risk of injury or staleness? First, some important questions:

  • Can you easily fit all workouts into your weekly schedule without excess stress?
  • Do you have any abnormal signs or symptoms, even very subtle ones, of physical, biochemical or mental-emotional injury?
  • If you’re considering high-intensity workouts, have they been successful, enjoyable and injury-free in the past?
  • With increased training, recovery needs rise too — are you getting the extra rest in the form of eight to nine hours of uninterrupted sleep?

Training tapers can play an important role in addressing these concerns by helping to improve recovery, adding muscle strength and getting the most out of key workouts.

It’s well-known that tapering works for races, but athletes should be aware it can work within the construct of a training program as well.

While most athletes know the value of a taper leading up to an important race, most go about it improperly or inadequately. Others can’t fathom the idea of not training while the rest of the pack is (supposedly). This is rooted in the no-pain, no-gain mentality, and the false assumption that tapering causes detraining. In reality, research shows a month of tapering does not adversely affect VO2max, for example, and can even improve it.

My observation in athletes I’ve worked with is tapering does not impair aerobic pace and often improves it as indicated by the MAF Test. I also found that during the taper process, the athlete’s gait can improve. This most likely is due to improved recovery and better muscle balance, and is also compatible with scientific findings that running economy can improve during a taper.

I also found a taper reduces the risk of illness often seen in athletes during high levels of training volume and/or intensity. Conditions such as the common cold, flu, asthma, allergies and others presumably are associated with increased hormonal stress, which impairs immune function.

By definition, tapering is a reduction in training volume, by around 50 percent or more, over a one to four-week period. I sometimes reduce training volume even further by up to 70 percent for some athletes during a taper, while eliminating high-intensity training.

I have defined tapering as a form of recovery, or rest, where the body gets stronger and healthier. This also can include more off days. In addition to race preparation, employing tapering during periods of higher training volume and/or intensity can help you get more out of training with less risk of injury.

During tapering, athletes can use easy walking as an alternative activity to maintain body motion and activity. Walking stimulates the body’s fat-burning system, improving fitness even further without the stress of specific and structured training. Many athletes find walking so enjoyable and effective that they incorporate it into their regular routine.

Tapering has been implemented by coaches, clinicians and athletes for many decades. But it was not until research in the late 1980s, when its value was clearly demonstrated, did it become well accepted, first with swimmers, then cyclists, then runners, rowers and others. Today we know some form of taper is important for all athletes, and comes with many benefits:

  • Increased performance of up to 8 percent on race day. To demonstrate how significant this can be, let’s use a conservative 4 percent improvement: a 2:10 marathoner would potentially break 2:05; a 10-hour Ironman athlete could finish near 9:30.
  • Research demonstrates that the primary benefits of a taper are increased muscle strength. Tapering can improve fast-twitch muscle function better or quicker than interval or other high-intensity workouts, including resistance training.
  • While muscle protein synthesis becomes impaired to some extent during high-volume and/or high-intensity training, tapering influences genes that quickly reverse this condition.
  • I found healthy athletes benefit from tapering much more — strengthening an already healthy body builds more fitness than in an injured one.

As mentioned, tapering is not just for pre-race. Creating a healthy schedule with built-in tapers allows the body to benefit more from longer or harder workouts. Whenever it’s implemented, follow a similar pattern of gradually reducing training by around 50 percent over the taper period. For example, for a three-week taper, each week’s training is reduced by over 15 percent.

Here are examples of ways to benefit from tapering throughout the year.

Taper leading up to race season, or a primary race. The longer and more important the race, the more taper, although this is not a strict rule. Tapering for a 5k track race over a three to four-week period can significantly improve strength needed for this distance. If your race season is filled with events, a long taper is a must.

Taper before the onset of higher-intensity training. This consists of two components:

  • After a build-up of high-volume training, take at least two weeks to taper before implementing high-intensity workouts. Going into this training period fresh will give you a better return on your investment.
  • Use mini-tapers, including off days, which are integral parts of a taper, before high-stress workouts, such as a long run.

Here’s an example of an age-group marathoner’s schedule:

Monday — off

Tuesday — 60 minutes

Wednesday — 30 minutes

Thursday — 60 minutes morning and afternoon

Friday — 30 minutes

Saturday — off

Sunday — 2 hours

Various forms of tapering can play a key role in year-round training and competitive success. This is particularly important as training volume and/or intensity increases. Taper can also play a role in improving health during these periods, and can particularly improve muscle strength to significantly increase performance on race day.

 

Bibliography

Harber MP, Gallagher PM, Creer AR, et al. (2004). Single muscle fiber contractile properties during a competitive season in male runners. Am J Physiol 287(5): R1124-R31.

Luden N, Hayes E, Galpin A, et al. (2010). Myocellular basis for tapering in competitive distance runners. J Appl Physiol 108: 1501–09.

Murach K, Raue U, Wilderson B et al. (2014). Single Muscle Fiber Gene Expression with Run Taper

PLoS One. 2014; 9(9).

Neary JP, Martin TP, Quinney HA (2003). Effects of taper on endurance cycling capacity and single muscle fiber properties. Med Sci Sports Exerc 35: 1875–81.

Trappe S, Costill D, Thomas R (2000). Effect of swim taper on whole muscle and single muscle fiber contractile properties. Med Sci Sports Exerc 32: 48–56

13 Comments

  • James says:

    Hi Ivan
    I know the answer to this will most likely be ‘it depends’ but would you do a one or two week taper prior to a one week mountaineering trip?
    James

  • Marco Willemart says:

    For the past weeks I’ve been planning my workouts based on this article, including mini-tapers. I’m training for a marathon in April and I run only at MAF HR.

    Here’s the result:

    Feb. 1 to 7 (total = 4h50):
    – Monday: 35 minutes
    – Tuesday: 60 minutes
    – Wednesday: 60 minutes
    – Thursday: off
    – Friday: 60 minutes
    – Saturday: off
    – Sunday: 35 minutes (am) + 40 minutes (pm)

    Feb. 8 to 14 (total = 5h30):
    – Monday: 40 minutes
    – Tuesday: 40 minutes (am) + 40 minutes (pm)
    – Wednesday: off
    – Thursday: 90 minutes (am) + 60 minutes (pm)
    – Friday: 30 minutes
    – Saturday: off
    – Sunday: 30 minutes

    Feb. 15 to 21 (total = 5h45):
    – Monday: off
    – Tuesday: 90 minutes
    – Wednesday: 45 minutes
    – Thursday: 60 minutes (am) + 60 minutes (pm)
    – Friday: off
    – Saturday: 45 minutes
    – Sunday: 45 minutes

    Of course it is very individualized and based on training opportunities which sometimes vary from week to week. My goal is to increase the total time per week I spend running as well as the duration of individual workouts (both short and long ones). I’ll do this until I reach the taper period before the marathon.

    What do you think about this? Am I correct, i.e., a good MAF student?

    • Marco:

      Yes, it seems like a good idea. However, be sure to leave 1-2 days of rest per week. In other words, don’t fill in your days of rest in an attempt to increase your time.

      • Marco Willemart says:

        Thanks for your reply. Yes, I stick to these two days of rest per week, even if I feel right and I want to go running. In addition, I use the ithlete application to check my HRV every morning so if I find my HRV is very bad I don’t go running that day, even if I had a workout scheduled.

  • Geoff says:

    In calculating my MAF heart rate, does the -5 bpm criteria for injury apply only to physical injuries or do biochemical or mental/emotional injuries also qualify for the -5 bpm. I work in a high stress job and have had previously eaten a suboptimal diet but have no physical injuries. Should I still deduct 5 bpm when doing my MAF calculation?

    • Geoff:

      Generally, it pertains to physical injuries. Any work/emotional stress will lower your aerobic speed. That’s the way it usually factors into the end result. However, more broadly, an injury is an injury. If you continue to have the nagging feeling that you perhaps should take off 5 BPM because you feel that what you’re experiencing is an injury, then you’re most likely correct.

      Furthermore, if you’re right, and it is an injury, you just saved yourself a lot of exercise-related stress and helped increase the rate of your aerobic gains. But if you’re wrong, and it wasn’t an injury (and you still took off 5 BPM), you only marginally maybe decreased your rate of aerobic gains a little bit. In other words, poking a toe over that threshold changes the game in a way that staying juust under it doesn’t.

      The prudent choice (particularly when you’re talking about the aerobic threshold) is often the right one.

  • Srinivas says:

    I am trg for a 100 miler. The max I am planning to run in a week is 121km. What should be the taper plan? Thanks.

    • Srinivas:

      Generally, I’d say to take 2-3 weeks to bring your training volume down to 0, leaving 24-48 hours of complete rest between the last day of taper and the race. Whether you do 2 or 3 weeks and 24-48 hours is up to you and how your body responds. Personally, I’d do a 20-day taper.

      • Gary says:

        HI–I am training for my first couple of ultra trail runs this summer of 125KMs. I have completed a full IM, a few half IM, and a bunch of sprints over the last 3 years. I am 55. I have been running on reduced carbs for several months now, and higher fat intake. Is it fair to say I should keep my training in the (180-55=125 + 5 =130),–125 to 130 range.

        How long should my longest training run be

        What sort of pre-run and run nutrition do you find works for these ultras

        • Gary:

          I’d say that’s a pretty good range.

          The 2 most important things that you can understand before a race are the duration you expect to be running, and the race pace that you think will be sustainable. For most people, such a distance would mean a race pace equivalent to a heart rate at or just below MAF.

          For the race itself, something light and easy to digest, with a good amount of protein, fats, and carbohydrates. Personally, I also like adding a little bit of fiber to my race energy for long races, just to help the digestive system. For example, off the top of my head, if the directions say to blend a scoop of whey protein in 250 ml of water, I’ll put a scoop of whey protein into 750 ml. Then, I’ll add berries, spinach, a banana, and coconut cream, with the purpose of keeping a watery consistency. This has the following goals, all of which I believe are important:

          1) Aiding my digestive system and helping keep it in play (thanks to the protein)
          2) Providing carbohydrate calories to top off the fuel tank
          3) Providing fats to encourage greater fat-burning
          4) Working as a source of hydration (so that it’s not so heavy or so thick that it dries out my mouth).
          5) Enabling me to easily and without effort suck the mixture through the valve of my fuel/water bottle.

          For the pre-race nutrition, particularly immediately before the race, I’d suggest that you eat the light, balanced dinner which is most common and least special for you. I’m thinking of something such as a soup or a chili that has a decent amount of low-glycemic carbohydrates, but is also laden with good fats and proteins.

          By giving yourself a special dinner, you put your body in “race mode,” meaning that it’s far more stressed once the race does begin. Anything you can do to soothe yourself into thinking that race day is a day just like any other will be a huge help to you once you’re three-quarters of the way into the race.

  • Marco says:

    I just spent a full week skiing at the mountain. Should I consider tapering for a week or so? I train for a marathon in April.

    Also how long a tapering may be before a marathon? I’ve heard about 2 weeks? Should I reduce training load to 50% or less?

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