Most endurance athletes accept that tapering before a competition is beneficial, but few understand why.
A trial was conducted back in the 1990s by a group of Canadian researchers at the McMaster University in Ontario (Shepley et al. 1992). The trial was conducted for one week, with experienced endurance athletes who all run approximately 50 miles a week in training. The athletes were split into three groups, with each group working a different training program for the week. At the end of the week, the performance improvement for each group was checked. The results were as follows:
As shown in the table, group 3 achieved the best improvement in their performance (22%). Also, group 3 enjoyed four advantages over the other groups.
Similar tests have also concluded that there is also an improvement in the neural system as well as achieving the above advantages. The result is that the athlete has improved 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:
If your total mileage is more than 50 miles a week and your event is greater than one hour, then taper for 14 to 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. I use a four-week cycle with all my athletes, where the fourth week is an active rest and test week. In the 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.
The following are examples of taper programs:
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