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Tapering for Success

Brian Mackenzie explains why tapering before a competition is beneficial.


Most endurance athletes accept that tapering before a competition can improve performance, but few understand why.

A trial was conducted back in the 1980s by a group of Canadian researchers at the McMaster University in Ontario. The trial was conducted for one week, with a group of experienced endurance athletes who all run approximately 50 miles a week in training. The athletes were split into three groups, with each group working on a different training programme for the week. At the end of the week, the performance improvement for each group was checked. The results were as follows:

Group Training programme % reduction in
training load
% improvement
1 No training 100% 0%
2 18 miles (easy running) 64% 6%
3 6 miles (500m sessions at max effort) 88% 22%

As can be seen from the table, group 3 achieved the best improvement in their performance (22%). Also, group 3 enjoyed four advantages over the other groups.

  • More glycogen in the leg muscles
  • Increased density of red blood cells
  • Increased blood plasma
  • Increased enzyme activity in their leg muscles

Similar tests have also concluded that as well as achieving the above advantages, there is also an improvement in the neural system. The result is that the athlete has an improved ability of a better rested nervous system to control and co-ordinate better-rested muscles at faster running speeds. These are all very desirable in an athlete's preparation for a major competition.

What to do

If your total mileage is less than 50 miles a week and your event is less than one hour, then:

  • taper for 7 -10 days
  • reduce the total mileage by 80%
  • training intensities high interval sessions (90% VO2 max)
  • reduce the frequency of training by 20%

If your total mileage is greater than 50 miles a week and your event is more significant than one hour, then taper for 14-20 days otherwise use the same strategy.

Tapering in training

If tapering in this way can have this effect on your performance, then perhaps you should consider including tapering weeks in your season's training programs. With all my athletes, I use a four-week cycle, where the fourth week is an active rest and test week. In this fourth week, the training load is reduced by 70%, 2 or 3 tests at max effort are performed, and light sessions are included between tests. The tests are used to monitor progress made in the preceding three weeks of training, and the results are considered in the planning of the next 4-week cycle.

Article Reference

This article first appeared in:

  • MACKENZIE, B. (2003) Tapering for Success. Brian Mackenzie's Successful Coaching, (ISSN 1745-7513/ 7 / November), p. 2

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • MACKENZIE, B. (2003) Tapering for Success [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Author

Brian Mackenzie is a British Athletics level 4 performance coach and a coach tutor/assessor. He has been coaching sprint, middle distance, and combined event athletes for the past 30+ years and has 45+ years of experience as an endurance athlete.