Thursday, August 22, 2013

Scientific Tapering Done Right

By Chris Myers, PCG Elite Coach

Peaks Coaching Group triathlon scientific tapering done right

As the summer comes to an end, many triathletes are beginning final preparations for the biggest races of the season. The tapering process is the final piece of a training program to maximize physical fitness.

A few weeks ago published an article titled “Scientific Tapering Made Easy.” The author of the article made a good attempt at simplifying the process, but the result is fundamentally flawed. The stated definition of volume and instructions of how to perform a taper oversimplify the tapering process and puts the athlete in danger of ruining his or her progress.

The article defines volume as a product of duration and distance. With the incorporation of technology such as power and heart rate monitors, the definition has changed; volume is better defined as a product of duration and intensity, better communicating the training picture. In triathlon it is extremely important to define training volume correctly. The balancing act between three different events is tricky, and the correct calculation and measurement of training volume requires constant monitoring.

The other aspect in which the article was incorrect was its explanation of how to do a scientific taper. The author states:

An effective taper must always involve a reduction in training volume of at least 60 percent, while frequency of training should be kept the same or reduced only slightly. Intensity must be kept as high or slightly higher than usual and maintained right up to race day.

This oversimplification is completely wrong. The scientific taper is defined as “specialized exercise training technique which has been designed to reverse training-induced fatigue without a loss of the training adaptations” (Neary, Martin, Reid, Burnham, & Quinney, 1992).

Four different tapering techniques exist: linear, fast exponential, slow exponential, and step taper, also known as reduced training (Mujika & Padilla, 2003). Figure 1 below depicts these four tapering methods. The author of the article described the reduced training tapering method.

Peaks Coaching Group scientific tapering done right
Mujika & Padilla, 2003

The training volume is reduced in all case; the difference between the methods is the reduction rate. The linear taper has a higher training load and slower reduction rate. The exponential taper rates have a slow or fast reduction rate, and the slow exponential taper has a higher training volume (Mujika & Padilla, 2003). Weightlifters and bodybuilders preparing for competition primarily use the step taper (reduced training) method.

Choosing the right type of taper and volume reduction depends on the triathlete’s fitness level, which is determined through several different factors. Some of these factors are the number of hours trained per week, weekly TSS accumulation, CTL, etc. The application of the taper is more of an art than a science. To determine the correct tapering method, a minor taper should be conducted during a triathlete’s season; this helps to identify the best course of action before the season’s culminating event.

Performing the taper requires manipulating training volume equation, time, and intensity. Before this is done, the triathlete needs to ask himself/herself, “What kind of athlete am I? Am I a trained or an untrained triathlete?” The type of training level will determine how much reduction in time and intensity is needed to do the proper taper. Those triathletes with a higher TSS and CTL or even a post-overreaching training cycle will need more of a reduction of training volume than those with a lower TSS and CTL. For example, a highly trained triathlete will need a training volume reduction of 60-90%, whereas an untrained athlete will only need up to a 30% reduction in training volume (Mujika & Padilla, 2003). The key during the tapering process is to maintain the intensity of training volume to avoid detraining (Mujika & Padilla, 2003). This allows for optimal performance during the key athletic event.

The other side of performing the taper is the timing of it.  Like the type of taper, timing is determined by the athlete’s fitness and experience level. The physiological benefits of a taper typically last for seven to fourteen days. No matter how experienced or inexperienced a triathlete is, he/she can reap the physiological benefits of the taper (McNealy & Sandler, 2007).  

To advise randomly dropping one’s training volume by 60% for an unspecified period of time is reckless. The triathlete would most likely lose the physiological adaptations and gains from a season’s worth of hard work.

Remember, the goal of the taper is to maximize the physiological benefits of training. It induces the positive physiological and psychological aspects of a good training program. Before making the decision of which taper is right for you, do the research and find out which technique is the best for you.