Performance improvements have been seen with tapers lasting from four days to five weeks; however, what is right for you depends on what you have done before the taper. In other words, the more you train, the longer your taper needs to be. Athletes who have been overreaching by adding 20 percent to 30 percent more volume in the final stages of their buildup and who train well beyond 20 hours a week need to shoot for a longer taper—generally three to four weeks. This will allow them to shed fatigue and reestablish mental energy, which is often compromised during hard training. Athletes who train less than 20 hours per week generally only need seven to 14 days for their taper, or they may lose fitness. Athletes with a peak volume of 10 hours per week will only need a few days to freshen up unless their regimen is highly intensive, in which case they may need upward of a week to sharpen their mental and physical energy. In this regard it is interesting to note that Mujika suggests that lower-volume athletes can reduce their frequency—the number of sessions done in each discipline during the week—during taper at no cost, while those who train a lot and generally do two to three sessions a day need to maintain their frequency to elicit the optimal performance gains from the taper. The most likely reason for this relates to the technical side of performance—when you reach a state where you train every day in a discipline, your motor-firing patterns and “feel” for that discipline become refined to a degree where there is a significant drop in performance with even a single day of rest. This effect is known especially among swimmers who often say they lose their “feel for the water” during even short breaks, and I found the same to be true for cycling and running when I was a professional. Bozzone’s taper model that consisted of a short swim, ride and run in the days leading into his 2006 Wildflower course record—and even his jog, spin and swim warm-up the morning of the race—align perfectly with this school of thought.
Nutrition During the Taper
Obviously your energy output will go down as you reduce the energy spent on training. This decline needs to be accounted for in your daily meals, by eating a little less than normal. Some athletes continue eating what they always do and end up gaining a few unwanted pounds—that is, pounds other than those gained from your carb stores stocking up. While a pound or two, especially during the final week of the taper, may be normal, gaining more than this will make it harder for you to reach your goals on race day. Do not attempt to lose weight during those final three to four weeks before your race. Your body is recovering and needs proper nutrients and balance to bring all the hard work you have done to the surface. Putting it in starvation mode sends the wrong signal and will likely reduce the effect of your taper.
In the final week prior to your race you should put an emphasis on eating lots of quality carbohydrates. Up to 70 percent of your energy should come from food sources such as whole wheat, pasta, oats, quinoa, brown rice, juice and fruit. According to a study by W.M. Sherman, Costill et al., this will give you a boosting effect similar to that attained from the traditional carb-loading depletion model from the 1970s, where the body is depleted through a long session followed by three days on a zero carb diet and then restocked with three days of a high-carb diet. You should also make sure that you are getting enough fluids, but beware of overhydrating and flushing out your system. Listen to your body and give it what it is telling you it needs.
Psychology in the Taper
Several studies have investigated mood shifts, changes in perceived effort, stress hormone profiles and other psychological markers during a taper and found all of them to improve, according to Mujika. When immersed in heavy training, one of the earliest indicators of being on the edge of overtraining is that your mood drops below normal. A Danish national coach in orienteering once told me that he kept track of all of his athletes’ moods to tip him off when one of them was on the verge of going over the edge.
When fatigue drops and your fitness unleashes all its power, your mood can elevate significantly. In fact, if you keep track of your mood, you are keeping track of your body’s subtle method of telling you when to rest and when you are spot on with your training and ready to race. If you have overreached in the final stages of your buildup, you may experience a mental and a physical low in the first week or so of your taper, or sometimes even in the early days of race week. This may merely be a sign that your body desperately needs the rest or that it is preparing for the upcoming challenge by conserving energy on all planes. Because tapering is still more of an art than a science, mood shifts are the best indicators of whether or not you are on track.
In 1999 I watched fellow Dane Suzanne Nielsen win the ITU long distance world championships in Saeter, Sweden, despite not running a single step in the final two weeks of the taper due to an inflamed bursa in the hip. From her performance I learned that once fitness is built, it is hard to kill. Nevertheless, if you speak to our sport’s world and Olympic champions, most of them will tell you that in the weeks prior to their great performances, they erred on the side of training a bit too much rather than too little. As long as you are not over-trained heading into your taper, remember that your body is used to work and it wants to train.
I hope that you can use this article as a guide to pinpointing the perfect taper for you. While you might not hit the nail on the head your first try, if you keep copious notes on how you felt during your consecutive tapers, you can help ensure that the final weeks before every race will elevate you to new racing heights.
Sindballe is a former pro triathlete who is now the chief performance officer for Advitam Sports.