Tapering is a mysterious notion. Everyone has an idea of what it is and knows it should be part of their peak performance, and there's a general belief that tapering can make that peak performance even better.
So what is tapering, exactly? Tapering is the principle that, once a level of true fitness is gained, a short period of reduced effort will allow the athlete to recover from accumulated fatigue and improve performance.
Does tapering work? Yes, when executed properly. However, it's one of the most challenging protocols to implement in training, mainly because finding the perfect balance between fitness and freshness is a challenge. Why? A great taper is a balancing act between your system readiness and system freshness. If you spend your final training week resting or just heading out for some easy spins, you can be too fresh, and your system is not ready to perform. On the other hand, if you maintain your hard training regime, your system may be too fatigued to hit your goals.
Step 1: Reduce Training Load
As you approach your big event, start reducing your overall training load by cutting back both your endurance and interval work, starting between 7-14 days before your big event. How much should you reduce it?
A good target is to reduce endurance load/total weekly duration between 20-30%
Reduce training intensity load (total time in Zone 3 and above) 10-20%
If you’re starting your taper two weeks out, you can progress your reduction. For example, two weeks before your event, reduce your endurance load by 20%, and the last week before the event, reduce it to 30%. Do the same with intensity. This is a very individual pattern, though, so experiment and learn yours.
Step 2: Build on your taper week
Once you establish your reduction goal, the next step is to determine your weekly training schedule. I frequently see athletes drop too much intensity out of these final two weeks, and this is a big mistake. Significant reduction in stimuli will shut down the body and support systems, and your body will not be primed for race day.
So what do you do? What does this look like? Well, it’s different for different events. Let’s talk about some differences.
We’ll start with scheduling. Let’s say you’ve been taking Monday off and training hard with higher intensity on Tuesdays and Saturdays. We want to maintain that pattern but reduce both the overall duration and intensity of training. Once we determine the pattern, I suggest adding a “primer” day for longer events 3-5 days before the big day. This primer is a longer, easy endurance day focused on depleting glycogen in the system so that, with good nutrition, you top off the system in the following days and be fully charged for race day.
Two weeks before longer events
Week of longer events
For shorter events, I would follow the same pattern as above, except I would not build in the primer day; instead, I would build in a race intensity day that builds on the Tuesday efforts.
Two weeks before shorter events
Week of shorter events
A word about fitness
Humans adapt pretty slowly to exercise. For most of us, it takes 4-8 weeks to fully adapt to stimuli, which means that during this time of taper, there really is no work that you can do to get more fit before the race. You need to trust in the fitness you have built over the last couple months and change your focus from fitness to peak performance. Peak performance requires a good balance between your fitness and freshness, which is why we taper.