Tapering: The real art and science of coaching
Issue: Volume 28 Number 3
A critical time of the year for coaches and athletes is the taper phase. It is here that training, preparation and the season are all put to the test and athletes make a final improvement in performance. The challenge for coaches is to use their knowledge and experience to help the athlete make that final adaptation and reach their potential while constantly adjusting for a myriad of factors such as travel, stress, technique and physical changes that come with reduced training. This article summarises research on tapering with the objective of providing coaches with information to help them make informed decisions on how to create an optimal taper for their athletes.
An overview of 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 characterised 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 physical and psychological stress of daily training and optimise sports performance’ (Mujika 2000).
At the peak of a taper the athlete has a high state of ‘synergism’ — the joint action of several factors, which together increase each other’s effectiveness (that is, rested, healthy, no injuries, energetic, confident). Tapering has been shown to result in a performance improvement of 2–4 per cent in most studies in laboratory and field performance tests as well as competition results.
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. In fact, improvements in performance during taper are significantly correlated with decreases in the negative influences of training (fatigue), but are not correlated with the positive influences of training (fitness) (Mukika et al. 1996). The effects of tapering on the various physiological systems in the body are reviewed below.
Studies have looked at the effects of taper on blood parameters such as haemoglobin (oxygen carrying capacity of the red blood cells), haematocrit (the percentage of red blood cells in the blood) and red blood cell volume (the size of the red blood cells). Mujika (1997) found increases in all three parameters during taper that would suggest an improvement in aerobic capacity that would help endurance athletes. Researchers have also found increases in reticulocyte counts (new red blood cells), suggesting an increased erythropoesis (red blood cell production) during taper. The increase in blood parameters may also help improve the buffering capacity of the blood through increased haemoglobin levels, which can increase the ability of the body to tolerate lactic acid produced in high intensity exercise.
Research has investigated the changes in anabolic hormones (hormones that help build and repair tissue) and catabolic hormones (stress hormones that cause damage to tissues) during taper and has related these changes to observed performance improvements (Aldercruetz et al. 1986). These authors have noted a significant correlation between the improvement in testosterone (anabolic)/cortisol (catabolic) ratio and improvement in performance during a four week taper. Changing the balance between anabolic and catabolic hormones may improve recovery after exercise and speed the elimination of fatigue. This suggests a particularly important consideration for coaches — the elimination of extraneous stress during taper. Reducing any type of stress, even stress not related to the sport (such as arguments with parents, examinations, etc.) can reduce the level of cortisol in the athlete and improve positive adaptation. This also implies that the added stress from higher than normal levels of anxiety and nervousness that occur near major competitions must be accounted for in the taper protocol, as must stressful travel. Coaches can account for higher anxiety and travel by easing training stress or by helping the athletes cope with stress through sport psychology techniques such as progressive relaxation and visualisation.
Several studies have examined the effects of tapering on muscle contractile properties and the ability to produce power. These results suggest that tapering induces alterations in the contractile properties of single muscle fibres. Further, it appears that the Type IIa fibres are more affected than the Type I fibres by the taper. The increased size, strength, velocity and power of the IIa fibres may be responsible for the improvements in whole muscle strength and power after the taper (Trappe et al. 2000). It is appropriate to stop resistance training during the last 10–15 days before an event to allow for adequate time for the muscle to rebuild and regenerate before the beginning of the competition. It is also advisable to avoid eccentric muscle contractions (applying tension while lengthening the muscle) during taper as this type of muscle stress can cause micro-tears that take time to repair.
Immune response effects
Another significant adaptation that has been shown to occur in response to a taper is the increase in the cell counts for white blood cells, specifically eosinophils (believed to be important 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 that occur in taper, and seems to be related (correlation co-efficient 0.86) with the reduction in training volume. This suggests that there is an improvement in the body’s capacity to resist illness during taper. Note that stress hormones such as cortisol can counteract this effect, so stress management skills are important in maintaining immune function.
A study on female swimmers demonstrated an improvement in sleep duration and perceived quality during taper (Taylor et al. 1997). The improvement in sleep quality is important, as there is a growth hormone release during stage III and IV sleep and naturally released growth hormone acts to repair muscle tissue and speed recovery. Encourage your athletes to get at least 7.5 hours and preferably nine hours of sleep during a taper phase.
Tapering has been shown to have positive effects on the psychological state of athletes. Significant improvements in the Profile of Mood States measures of tension, depression and anger were observed after one week of tapering, with significant improvements in total mood disturbance and fatigue (Hooper et al. 1998). Other benefits include increased motivation, arousal and psychological relaxation. Coaches should include relaxation exercises such as visualisation and progressive relaxation, as well as positive talk, and other confidence reinforcing techniques in competition preparation.
How to design training to achieve a tapering effect
Peaking during a taper is not a physiological mystique, but rather a complex training state that can be attained in a consistent manner. During a taper, coaches decrease training stress to achieve an improvement in performance. The decrease in training stress can be accomplished by reducing the number of practices (frequency), the intensity of the workouts (intensity), the volume of training performed in a given session (volume) and by varying the length of the taper (duration). However, the reduction should not be detrimental to the gains that the athletes have made through training. This is truly where the art and science of coaching meet. Each of these factors is now be discussed in more detail.
This is the one area in which pre-taper levels should be maintained during the taper itself. The athletes must still practise at competition intensity or higher. In several well-designed studies reviewed in Mujuka (2003), researchers have shown that only a high-intensity, low-volume taper design was effective in maintaining or improving total blood volume, blood cell volumes, citrate synthase activity (an aerobic enzyme), muscle glycogen concentrations, muscle strength and running time to fatigue in groups of elite athletes. Thus, I recommend that coaches maintain training intensity during taper to avoid de-training. It is through the reductions in the other variables (volume, frequency and duration) that recovery should be achieved.
Reducing the frequency of practice (that is, number of workouts per week) has been shown to improve performance more than maintaining pre-taper frequencies (Johns et al. 1992). This reduction in training frequency must be balanced with the need to practise optimal motor patterns and technique. Thus, my recommendation is to reduce training frequency to no less than 80 per cent of pre-taper values, to avoid de-training and ‘loss of feel’, especially in technique-dependent sports.
Reductions of 50–70 per cent in total training volume have been reported to maintain or improve training-induced adaptations in elite runners and cyclists (Martin 1993; McConnell 1994). Other studies have reported benefits with reductions of up to 85 per cent in total training volume (Mujika 2000). In general, endurance athletes should have less reduction in training volume than sprinters, or strength and power athletes. Thus, the recommendation is to reduce training volume by 50–85 per cent.
Research on tapering has suggested that tapers should last 4–21 days. In general, sprint and strength-based athletes should taper for longer than endurance athletes, but this should be highly individualised, based on how each athlete recovers and maintains their sport-specific physiological gains. This is because aerobic muscle enzymes decrease rapidly so continued training is important. Longer tapers are important for sprint and strength events, as the nervous system takes longer to recover and adapt. Males may require a longer taper than females due to differences in muscle mass. Also, older athletes require longer tapers than younger athletes.
It has been quite well demonstrated in the research that fast decay exponential reductions in total training stress (intensity, frequency, volume and duration) are more effective than linear reductions or step reductions (Mujika 2004; Mujika and Padilla 2003). This may be especially true for shorter tapers, or for very short ‘mini-tapers’ that coaches sometimes use mid-season for events of moderate importance.
There are several other key considerations for ensuring an effective taper. The first consideration is coaching the athletes on perfect recovery habits after each practice. The second factor is to ensure that the athletes practice with perfect technique at all times, even during warm-up and warm-down phases of the practice. The nervous system may be particularly sensitive to taper, and near perfect neuromuscular coordination is crucial to ensuring the creation of optimal motor patterns (Ray and Hume 1998). The third, and perhaps most important, success factor in creating a perfect taper is to ensure that the athlete unloads stress from their life outside that athletic arena. Mental and emotional stress can be just as important in determining the eventual performance as the physical practice.
There are seven characteristics that seem to be common to successful tapering techniques:
- Total training volume is reduced by 60–90 per cent.
- The volume of high-intensity training remains high (high intensity is relative to the event being prepared for).
- The level of difficulty is reduced by increasing recovery time.
- The frequency of training is reduced slightly (up to 20 per cent).
- The duration of taper is between four and 21 days, depending on the individual.
- Use a fast decay exponential taper design.
- Activities performed during taper are specific to the athlete’s competitive demands.
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