One of the most powerful training techniques developed to date, tapering has provided athletes in all sports the ability to drastically improve performances. All top caliber athletes today use tapering techniques to achieve the best possible results. The actual way a taper should be done is unknown, but it is undisputed that the overall results from tapering far exceed those from not tapering. Although the exact nature of each specific taper is elusive, the basic gist of a taper involves resting prior to a race--that's it.
The specifics can be a little technical and are highly dependent on many factors. Below, we discuss some of the intricacies and considerations involved in tapering for any sport.
Basics. As mentioned above, tapering, at its minimum, is resting. It is usually part of a long term training regimen that involves various high intensity training over a long period of time and then capped off with a taper. Most athletes will train very hard for a few months or more and will begin to gradually cut back on the amount and the intensity of the workouts a few weeks prior to the 'big race'. This technique is called the 'taper', because the athlete is tapering off the workload.
The very basic theory behind tapering is that the body builds up strength and endurance during the high intensity parts of the training cycle. It also begins to adapt to the daily stress and workload. To race during the heart of this part of the cycle or to race without providing the body a period of rest does not give the body time to recover from the stress of working out. The muscles will remain depleted and broken down, high lactic acid levels (which are bad) may not be fully depleted, and even mental sharpness may not be at its peak.
The taper allows the muscles to eliminate all the bad lactic acid that may be hanging around in the muscles. It also allows the body to repair the damage done through the stress and strain of working out hard. And, not only does the body repair itself, but it adapts the body to make it better able to withstand the stress and strain in the future. This means that the taper, done after a long intense cycle of working out makes the body stronger and more enduring. It allows the athlete to reap the full benefit of the hard workouts. Without a taper, only partial benefits are gained. If done correctly, the results can be huge!
Cycle. The workout cycle that has been done prior to taper plays a large role in how a taper is done. Generally, the longer the intense part of the cycle lasted, the longer the taper will need to be. This makes sense, because, if highly intense workouts were done over a longer period of time, then the amount of muscle and mental breakdown should be greater. The higher the amount of breakdown generates the need for a greater amount of time needed to recover completely and allow the body to regenerate and build reserves. The opposite holds true for tapers done after shorter periods of intensity.
The amount of intensity is also positively correlated with the amount of taper needed for reasons similar to those stated above. Higher intensity cycles generally require a longer time of taper.
Body Type. The type of body an athlete has is also believed to make a difference in the type of taper needed to achieve the best individual results. Since a formal theory has not been empirically proven and since most coaches don't have the time or the staff to individually adjust each taper to fit body style, group tapers are usually done. This is why it is imperative that each athlete monitor his or her own taper based on how he or she is feeling as the taper progresses and adjust it accordingly. Athletes should keep in mind that body and even mental differences create a need for individual tapers. [Gugly does not recommend questioning coaches, but does recommend that the individual tweak their own taper within the constraints of the coach's taper.]
It is believed that larger, more muscular bodies, need more time for taper, and smaller bodies with less muscle mass need less. No formulas exist, however, that contain the magic taper that will work every time. Use experience and knowledge as the guide.
Event. The type of event that is being concentrated on, will determine the type of taper performed. Usually, sprint events require less of a drop in mileage, but more of a drop in intensity during taper. Gugly recommends that some very short, race speed sprints continue to be practiced throughout the taper, in order to keep neurons and muscles trained to race. Just keep them very short and cut down the amount as the race nears. For distance racers, the mileage should drop down rather quickly. The intensity will not drop as fast as it does for sprinters, but it should also decrease over time. Gugly recommends that even the distance people should practice some short sprints during taper to help them 'bring it home' on race day.
Gugly also recommends that technique details be practiced during taper. Taper is a great time to pay attention to race details that are often overlooked during the heart of the season. All of that extra time that used to be spent piling up the distance and intensity is a great time to be spent fine-tuning!
For tapering specifics, talk to your local coach, or consult our team of coaches in the Virtual Trainer.