I recently posted on my facebook page a blog from strongerbyscience.com on the why & how of tapering & peaking for athletes. It’s a good summary article, and here I have added some key additional research detail on tapering which was not included in the summary or post..
At the end of the day training can be a numbers game (how often to run, how far, how fast) and tapering decision-making should be too. So to help inform your decisions regarding taper variables here’s some of the known outcomes of tapering according to the research studies. Remember, the aim of tapering is to achieve a ‘supercompensation’ to the pre-taper training stimulus and the best race day performance you can achieve in the circumstance. And when training has been disrupted due to pain, illness or injury you may need to adapt your decision making to be ready on race day.
How much does tapering improve race performance?
- Elite track athletes can experience 0.3-0.5% improvement in performance through tapering (Hopkins 2005).
- This gain can potentially be from 0.5% to 11% in non-elite athletes (Mujika & Padilla 2003).
How much can a moderately trained athlete decrease training frequency in a taper and not adversely affect race day performance?
- Moderately trained athletes maintain physiological adaptations even when there is a decrease in training frequency of up to 50% during a taper (Bosquet et al. 2002, Mujika & Padilla 2003).
How much can an athlete reduce training intensity during a taper and not adversely affect race day performance?
- During a taper, a training intensity of less than 70% VO2 max has been shown to maintain or reduce performance (no supercompensation occurs) (West et al.2013, Kiecolt-Glaser et al. 1998).
- During a taper, maintaining a training intensity of more than 90% VO2 max is associated with improved performance (supercompensation occurs) (Cook et al. 2011).
Tapering protocols assume an athlete has reached a satisfactory training distance in the month preceding taper start date, and an undefined but decent number of miles in the legs over the preceding weeks & months. This is individual but typically considered to be a minimum longest distance run of 18-19 miles, and possibly up to 22 miles dependent on experience and the level of athlete (e.g. novice, intermediate, advanced, elite). If your longest distance is below 19 miles you should seriously consider withdrawing from the marathon – there are always more marathons. Be a smart athlete.
What should a runner do when pain, illness or injury has disrupted training and meant that less training than ideal has been completed during the training programme (reduced training volume)?
- Consider using a short duration step taper or exponential fast decay progressive taper if there is decreased overall training volume pre-taper (Kubukeli et al. 2002), the latter has been shown to still lead to 3.95 to 4.1% performance gains on pre-taper performance (Zaradas et al. 1995, Mujika & Padilla 2003, Banister et al. 1999). Step tapers are often considered not to be as effective but if it means you can settle down or inflamed tissue or pain before race day then you may be good to go on the day as a result of a week's rest beforehand.
There’s nothing like data to inform training (it should be science-based after all). However, even within science there is individual variability and some subjects form outliers falling outside the common responses. Having said that 95% of athletes will fall quite close to the research results (within two standard deviations in statistical terms). So use the science to make the right decision for you.
The more you have trialled different tapering approaches the more you will know how they affect you; the less you have the more you should start from a scientific start point. And when training volume has been reduced pre-taper you may need to think differently – very little, if any, tapering research has been done on rehabilitating athlete’s, but we’ve all seen a big race where an athlete has had less than ideal preparation but performed well on the day (the higher the mileage you’ve done in the past and the more you’ve maintained high levels of conditioning the more likely this is).
Enjoy running – train smart – successful athlete’s adapt to adversity.
Be realistic , confident & ambitious, but not over-ambitious. Race day will lift you but preparation is key.