Tapering research

Tapering Research: If you're a cyclist, swimmer, runner, or triathlete, do you taper prior to your competitions? If so, recent research indicates that you're probably tapering in a totally wrong way.

Tapering - reducing your volume and/or intensity of training prior to competition - IS a great idea, since it can improve performance by 3-22 per cent, but athletes, coaches and scientists haven't been exactly sure how to do it. For example, some coaches call for reducing total training distance by 20 per cent during the week before competition; others ask for a 90-per cent cutback. In addition, some coaches favour slow, easy training during a tapering week, while others stand behind small quantities of very fast work. As a result, athletes have been pretty perplexed by the whole topic. Now, relief is at hand. Research carried out at East Carolina University in the United States indicates that a tiny amount of speedy training represents the optimal plan for a tapering period. At East Carolina, eight experienced runners (six males, two females) who had been running about 70 kilometres per week cut their training to just 10.5 kilometres of interval training and about 11 kilometres of jogging for one week. Almost all of the interval training consisted of high-intensity, 400-metre intervals at about 5-K race pace or slightly faster.

However, the intervals were scheduled in a very interesting manner. On the first day of the seven-day taper, 30 per cent of the 1 0.5K of interval running (ie, eight 400-metre intervals) was completed. On the second day, 20 per cent of 1 0.5K (about five 400-metre intervals) was finished. 15 per cent was conducted on the third day, 12 per cent on day four, 10 per cent on day five, 8 per cent on day six, and 5 per cent on day seven. During the interval workouts, recovery intervals (walking or resting) lasted long enough to let heart rates drop to 100-110 beats per minute, and an 800-metre easy jog was performed both as a pre-workout warm-up and post-workout cool-down (this accounted for the 11 K of jogging for the week).

A second group of eight runners utilized a similar one-week tapering scheme, but all of their workouts were carried out on exercise cycles. Although the subjects in this second group were cycling, not running, their heart rates, interval durations, and the total number of intervals were exactly the same as in the run-trained tapering group. A third 'control' group of eight runners didn't taper at all but instead conducted their usual 70K of training for the week.

When a 5-K race was held on the eighth day of the study (the day after the one-week taper), the East Carolina scientists discovered that the run-taper group (the athletes who had focused on 1 0.5K of interval running) trimmed average 5-K times by a nifty 29 seconds, from 17:16 to 16:47. Significantly, all eight of the run-taper runners improved their 5-K race performances, and they also improved their running economy (the amount of oxygen required to run at a given speed) by a full 6 per cent. Meanwhile, cycle-taper and control-group members didn't better their previous 5-K times by even one second and benefited from no enhancements in running economy.

The lessons? If you're a runner and you suffer an injury about a week before a 5-K race, you can MAINTAIN your performance capacity by reducing your total training time and carrying out intense cycling workouts during the intervening week. However, if you're not injured, the best tapering plan discovered so far involves covering about 15 per cent of your usual total weekly mileage during 5-K paced intervals, with another 15 per cent completed during warm-up and cool-down jogging. The overall tapering total - 30 per cent of typical miles - represents a 70-per cent downturn in normal mileage for a week.

The expanded amount of rest enclosed within a tapering period allows muscles to recover from previous training, store extra glycogen, and synthesize whopping quantities of aerobic enzymes, while the fast, 5-K interval running provides specific preparation for 5-K and 1 0-K racing (it makes 1 0-K pace feel easier) and prevents any possibility of losing fitness. Although the East Carolina study focused on 5-K racing, a similar tapering plan should work just as well for 1 0-K and even longer races, since so many positive physiological changes occurred during the tapering week. The most striking alteration was the 6-per cent improvement in economy; previous research has shown that it sometimes takes runners many months to improve economy by much smaller amounts.

'The Effects of Taper on Performance in Distance Runners,' Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, vol. 26(5), pp. 624-631, 1994

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