Championship Season Strength & Conditioning: The Taper

Posted by Megan Fischer-Colbrie on Jan 28, 2014 9:09:00 AM

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Championship Season: The Taper

For many athletes, “taper” is a magical word. It means training gets a little more manageable (okay, a lot) and competing gets a lot more interesting. Taper is a training strategy primarily used by swimmers, runners, and cyclists that involves a significant reduction in training volume (both in one’s sport-specific training and in strength & conditioning training) and occasionally a reduction in intensity for a period of time before a peak performance competition.This period of time may vary on the order of weeks, anywhere from one to four, depending on the sport and the athlete.

The rationale for dramatically curtailing training lies in the positive physiological changes athletes feel and the significant improvement in performance they exhibit when their bodies are allowed the opportunity to recover from acute training stress, muscle soreness and generalized fatigue.
I will walk you through the basic mechanism of taper, the neuromuscular and other physiological changes that may occur, and a personal account of what it feels like to go through taper.

 

How It Works

Prior to a taper, there is generally an overload training period during which training volume and intensity are at a season high. During taper, training volume and intensity are reduced to a degree that partially depends upon the athlete’s main competitive events, gender, and age. A recent study used mathematical models to assess performance gains from different taper strategies. For example, greater performance gains were seen when there was higher training volume and intensity before the taper, but this also meant that the taper itself had to be longer and involve a greater reduction in training load. Sprint, middle-distance, and distance athletes will have different training volumes in the overload period. Literature suggests that the taper period should involve a reduction to 40-60% of that training volume to maximize performance gains.

The most effective taper model in this study (a medium training load in the first week of taper, with a slow exponential decay in load following) achieved the reduction in training volume through a 37% decrease in low-intensity training, a 49% decrease in high-intensity training, and a 95% decrease in strength training.
It is important to note how dramatically weight lifting and other strength exercises drop out of the training regimen during taper. Some high intensity training still remains because intensity plays a critical role in maintaining physiological adaptations established during earlier intensity training in the year. Intuitively, the athlete uses high intensity training during taper to fine tune or rehearse portions of the upcoming race.

 

Physiological Changes in Response to Taper

A number of changes occur in the body during taper, all of which may not be encapsulated here because of the complex interplay of the nervous, endocrine, muscular, circulatory, and other systems. I will highlight some interesting taper effects. Blood levels of creatine kinase (CK) can be used as a measure of physiological stress from training. Several studies have shown that CK levels are lower during taper in correlation with decreased training volume. Peak blood lactate levels are measured post-competition. In a review of studies published surrounding taper physiology, swimmers, runners and cyclists were found to have increased blood lactate following competition. This suggests that peak blood lactate may be used as a measure of anaerobic capacity and an indicator of taper-induced physiological changes.

Due to the marked decrease in strength training, there is less demand on the neuromuscular system. Muscular strength and power increase significantly following taper. In one study, a 25% increase in swim power correlated with a 3.1% improvement in peformance. Runners experienced an increase in maximal voluntary isometric strength of knee extensors following a taper. Studies suggest that muscle strength and power may usually be suppressed during heavy training, but recover during the taper period. Muscle also exhibits increased contractility following taper. This means higher force, faster shortening velocity (time it takes for a muscle to contract), and greater overall power of the muscle. For all of these positive changes to occur, the athlete must greatly reduce his or her strength training. Not only will this lead to reduced muscle soreness and fatigue, but it will also allow you to take full advantage of the strength and power built up in earlier phases of your training.

Word of Advice from a Taper Veteran

 

 

To paint a better picture for you of what all these wonderful changes in your training look like, I will touch on my first-hand account of a collegiate taper.

For starters, every taper is never the same as the one before. You are a different age, have trained slightly or dramatically differently than the year before, and may be competing in different events. Taper does not look the same for you as it does for your teammate, and it shouldn’t!
taper#3
Your coach knows how each athlete tends to respond to rest, and helps create the taper you need. As a swimmer, strength training largely dropped out of the picture during taper. Little to no weight lifting occurred, and mostly bodyweight exercises and stretching made up our dryland. The beauty of taper is that you feel most strong and powerful just as you are doing the least amount of strength training…quite an amazing feeling. There are alternating days of low-intensity work, moderate cardiovascular work, and speed work (the high-intensity days). Any high intensity training is done in smaller sections than earlier in the season, with more rest in between. It is a time to fine tune your technique in starts and flip-turns, or any other details you can now perfect because your muscles will respond the way you’d always hoped they would! Apart from the training, it is a period of mental recovery during which you “take it easy” when you’re not at workouts. Not surprisingly, some athletes get antsy or uncomfortable with a reduced training program. They are used to working hard day in and day out, and a couple weeks of rest can leave them feeling anxious. A critical aspect of enjoying and making the most of your taper is to take the pressure off yourself and let the good times roll. That may seem simple-minded, but from my experience, a happy athlete is a fast athlete. Above all, have fun during your taper and be excited about the competitions ahead!

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References:

  • Avalos M., Hellard P., Chatard J.C. (2003). Modeling the training-performance relationship using a mixed model in elite swimmers. Medicine and Sciences in Sports and Exercise 35, 838-846.
  • Effects of training frequency on the dynamics of performance response to a single training bout. Busso T, Benoit H, Bonnefoy R, Feasson L, Lacour JR J Appl Physiol (1985). 2002 Feb; 92(2):572-80.
  • A theoretical study of taper characteristics to optimize performance. Thomas L, Busso T Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2005 Sep; 37(9):1615-21.
  • Thomas L., Mujika I., Busso T. (2008). A model study of optimal training reduction during pre-event taper in elite swimmers. Journal of Sports Sciences 26, 643-652
  • J Sports Sci Med. 2013 Dec 1;12(4):668-78. eCollection 2013. Identifying Optimal Overload and Taper in Elite Swimmers over Time. Hellard P, Avalos M, Hausswirth C1, Pyne D2, Toussaint JF3, Mujika I4.
  • Physiological Changes Associated with the Pre-Event Taper in Athletes Inigo Mujika ˜ , 1,2 Sabino Padilla, 1 David Pyne2 and Thierry Busso3 Sports Med 2004; 34 (13): 891-927 REVIEW ARTICLE 0112-1642/04/0013-0891/

 

Topics: S+C, Competition