In order to see results and reap in the adaptations from exercise and training, an athlete or trainee must push their bodies past baseline, past their current limits. To maximize these gains, an athlete must also properly recover from training sessions so they can continue to train in a safe and efficient manner. Aside from adequate sleep, proper nutrition and nutrient intakes, one way athletes recover is by implementing periods of restoration, often called a deload. A deload is when the training stress is reduced in order for the athlete to realize their adaptations and to give their mind and body a well-deserved rest. A similar protocol, called a taper or peak, is when training stressed is acutely withdrawn to improve an athlete's performance measures beyond baseline, usually to prepare for an important sporting event or competition.
Part 2 will cover the details of a proper taper/peaking protocol. The manipulation of training variables will be discussed as well as the performance improvements that are expected from a taper.
Tapering & Peaking
Tapering and peaking for a competition revolves around the concepts of functional-overreaching and supercompensation. From part 1, we learned that acute fatigue from training can accumulate over weeks and months to cause chronic fatigue. Chronic fatigue can be be categorized into non-functional (develops into overtraining syndrome) and functional.
Functional-overreaching, despite it's negative effects on performance can result in what's known as supercompensation. Supercompensation, a slight enhancement of performance (>100%), is achieved through proper recovery after a subsequent period of hard training, termed planned overreaching, taper, or peaking. For the sake of this article, I'll be using the terms taper and peak synonymously.
A taper usually involves a structured reduction in training load to remove acute and fatigue in order to potentiate increases in physiological and psychological performance (47, 49, 54). I touched on this subject in my periodization series, where I discussed the fitness-fatigue model of performance, which suggests that fitness and fatigue are inversely related. When we introduce a training stress, fitness adaptations and the accumulation of fatigue occur simultaneously and it is not until the training stressor is reduced, where we see an improvement in performance. The fitness-fatigue model is used in conjunction with Selye's General Adaptation Syndrome and the Stimulus-Fatigue-Recovery-Adaptation model to explain training. I highly recommend you read my periodization series to better understand the following sections.
Who Should Taper? and Why?
The concept of tapering was created in order for athletes to produce their best performance on a given competition date. This means the taper or peak will be the most suitable for athletes involved in sports that are climatic in nature. Think of a huge MMA fight or the Olympic 100m sprint. Events that boil down to one time and date where the athlete needs to perform at their absolute best. These athletes will utilize the most aggressive tapering methods, compared to team sports or sports that consist of longer in-seasons where athletes are required to maintain a relatively high performance throughout weeks or months.
Non-climatic sports like tennis, basketball, and many team sports that have a 4-5 month game season will not depend on tapering/peaking methods until the most important games and matches - tournaments, playoffs and championships.
However, both type of sports use the same principle of training residuals to guide their tapering methods.
Training residuals refer to the rate of detraining for each physical attribute, such as maximal strength, maximal power, endurance, etc. This is an important concept to understand as there must be a fine balance between the how much a stressor should be withdrawn (and for how long) and what qualities must be at peak condition come competition day.
manipulating Training variables
Since frequency, intensity and volume mediate training load and training stress, manipulation of any these variables can cause a reduction in training load, the main goal of a taper. However, decreases in the wrong variable can hinder performance.
In a study by Mjukia et al (2012), elite middle-distance runners saw improvements in their performance when their frequency of training was maintained during a taper, compared to a 30% reduction in training frequency which resulted in no change in performance. The possible benefits of maintaining frequency can be credited to the fact that higher frequency training allows for a more strategic distribution of volume load, and creates an environment where technical skill can be practiced more frequently leading up to a competition. Due to the limitations and lack of studies on the manipulation of frequency for tapering, these recommendations seem to hold true for both aerobic and anaerobic sports. Example: take an Olympic Weightlifter who snatches and clean & jerks 4 times a week. It would not make sense to reduce competition lift frequency as the competition nears as maintaining 4 times a week practice is crucial for skill practice and visualization.
When it comes to intensity, a reduction during a taper has shown to lead to decreases in both aerobic and anaerobic performance measures. In several studies, intensity reductions ranging from 30 to 60% decreased aerobic and anaerobic performance by 20 to 30% as well as decrements in VO2max values. One basic explanation for this is that reducing intensity violates the rule of specificity in periodized training. Movement patterns and intensities should closely mimic the demands of competition as an athlete gets closer to competition. Reducing the weight on the bar for a powerlifter or straying too far away from race-pace for a runner does not adequately prepare them for competition. There may be situations where an intensity reduction is required (perhaps a mis-timed overreaching phase, or the athlete is too fatigue and sore to perform at the given intensity with quality movement), in these cases, keep intensity reductions on the low end (<30%).
In contrast, a maintenance or small increase in training intensity has been shown to be beneficial for performance. In power athletes, leg press 1RM, squat jump as well as track and field performance all increased when intensity of training was maintained up to the testing day or performance date. Elite rugby players also showed similar improvements in their jumping performance and their ability to generate force when intensity was slightly increased during a taper.
Since the literature recommends that frequency and intensity be maintained or slightly increased during a taper, the most practical solution then is to reduce training load is to reduce training volume.
In endurance training, reducing volume can be achieved by reducing the total time spent in the target heart rate or power output zone, or reducing the total distance covered during training. Reducing the time-in-zone volume is more accurate compared to reducing total distance as it considers the intensity of which training is carried out.
In resistance training, reducing volume during a taper is achieved via reducing the number of reps or sets performed at any given intensity. Murach & Bagley (2015) state that for both endurance and power sports, reductions in training volumes ranging from 30% to 70% over the span of 2 or 3 weeks improves sport performance.
I know what you're thinking... "30% to 70%!? that's a huge range, how is that practical?"
So... How much & how fast?
The magnitude and duration of the volume reduction is dependent on several factors:
The experience of the athlete (recreational vs. sub-elite vs. elite)
Length of the their training cycle
Initial training volume load
Previous experiences with tapering and peaking
Introduction of new recovery modalities during the taper or peak
It's suggested that if several weeks of moderate training is performed, a more conservative reduction in volume (30-50%) over the span of 7 to 10 days should be carried out. For hard training cycles that last several months, anywhere from 60-90% reductions in volume should be carried out over 10-28 days. The higher degree of accumulated fatigue, the larger reduction of training volume is needed to see performance gains at the end of the taper. This is where the readiness monitor plays a role in conjunction with monitoring training loads and intensity. Performance is just as much how the athlete feels the week of the competition, as it is how they're supposed to feel on paper.
Types of tapers
Taking into account the magnitude and duration of the taper, there are 3 tapering formats that have been reviewed in the literature.
Step taper is a complete and immediate decrease in training volume on the first day of the taper and is maintained throughout the whole duration (48).
Linear taper is defined as a progressive decrease in volume over the span of the taper duration, often seen in fixed increments. For example, decreasing volume by 5% or 10% every training session until the planned % reduction is reached.
Exponential taper involves reducing volume in a nonlinear fashion and can be defined as having a fast or slow decay rate. A fast decay rate for example, may mean reducing training volume by half every 2 days, while a slow decay rate may mean reducing training volume by half every 5 days. The literature proposes that for tapers that are short in duration, volume decreases should come by the way of step tapering or fast decay times, while athletes and coaches that possess more time to taper should experiment with more progressive reductions in volume with slow to moderate decay times.
How much of an improvement in performance can we expect from tapering volume and/or other training variables?
Obviously, this depends on the sport and the physical attributes related to the sporting event.
Reductions in training volume show benefits across the board for many different athletic events and populations. Below is a graph taken from Murach & Bagley (2015), outlining the performance benefits as it pertains to swimming, biking, running, rowing and throwing events.
Indirect Performance Measures
Tapering results in increased recovery and reduced stress, which can also facilitate more positive mood states and reducing performance anxiety, rate of perceived exertion and increased vigor and confidence. For all athletes, improvements in hormonal, psychological and sleep-related factors also contribute to increasing performance.
Specifically for endurance and mixed-type athletes, glycogen storage plays a big role in performance. With a taper and reduction in training volume, liver and muscle glycogen stores are able to replenish to their maximum levels with an accompanying decrease in muscular fatigue. Contrastingly, glycolytic and aerobic enzymes seem to be less affected by tapering. Increases in muscular power has also been seen in endurance athletes. During a taper, the type II muscle fibers are able to recovery and hypertrophy at a faster rate than type I fibers, and has thought to be the main contributor of muscular power increases.
For strength and power athletes, the performance increases can be attributed to a decrease in muscular fatigue. When volume is decreased, markers of muscle damage also progressively decrease, resulting in lower instances of muscle soreness.
For mixed athletes, the specific mechanisms are unclear and depend on the nature of the sport, but the taper benefits most likely come from a mixture of both endurance and power-based qualities. An analysis of the sport, and the athlete's position should be taken into account when planning a taper.
Direct Performance Increases
Endurance athletes can expect a 1-9% increase in VO2max, up to an 8% increase in running economy and up to a 15% increase in red blood cell count. Regardless of the distance of the event, it is reasonable to suggest that endurance athletes will see a direct 2-3% improvement in their sporting performance.
In strength and power athletes, 2-3% increases in bench press and squat strength have been seen, as well as up to 20% increase in neuromuscular function and strength (the higher end being seen in less experienced athletes).
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Lacey, James De, Matt Brughelli, Michael Mcguigan, Keir Hansen, Pierre Samozino, and Jean-Benoit Morin. "The Effects of Tapering on Power-Force-Velocity Profiling and Jump Performance in Professional Rugby League Players." Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 28, no. 12 (2014): 3567-570.
Mujika, I., A. Goya, E. Ruiz, A. Grijalba, J. Santisteban, and S. Padilla. "Physiological and Performance Responses to a 6-Day Taper in Middle-Distance Runners: Influence of Training Frequency." International Journal of Sports Medicine Int J Sports Med 23, no. 5 (2002): 367-73.
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Zaras, Nikolaos D., Angeliki-Nikoletta E. Stasinaki, Argyro A. Krase, Spyridon K. Methenitis, Giorgos P. Karampatsos, Giorgos V. Georgiadis, Konstantinos M. Spengos, and Gerasimos D. Terzis. "Effects of Tapering With Light vs. Heavy Loads on Track and Field Throwing Performance." Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 28, no. 12 (2014): 3484-495.