John Hawley · Director of the High Performance Laboratory
Sports Science Institute of South Africa
"I give notice to members of my team that within a week or so of an international contest, I shall be using the 'rest principle' very much more than the 'train hard' principle. My experience as coach has convinced me of the great importance of the 'rest principle' in making peak performances."
Forbes Carlile, legendary Australian swim coach
"I seldom run hard in training leading up to a big race. There is little point in leaving my best work on the training track."
John Walker, first man to run under 3:50 for the mile
Competitive endurance athletes often focus on optimizing performance at just one or two major events during an entire season. They usually "taper" or drastically reduce the volume of their training preceding such important meets. Indeed, it is now widely accepted that a properly designed taper should be an integral part of any endurance athlete's preparation for a major competitive effort (for review, see Houmard and Johns, 1994). Most athletes look forward to a taper as a break from the rigors of intense training. On the other hand, many coaches approach the taper period with some trepidation, as they try to hit the right balance of training and recovery.
During a taper, several variables can be manipulated in an attempt to maximize performance. These include the frequency, duration, and intensity of training sessions, and the duration of the whole taper period. So far there has been no systematic study of any of these variables; but from the existing research, some factors emerge as being important to a successful taper.
First, the training volume is reduced in an incremental or stepwise fashion for 10-14 days, so that in the 2-3 days immediately before a major competition it is almost zero. Although tapers as long as six weeks have been examined, such extended tapers at best only maintain performance, rather than improve it.
Second, training intensity should be maintained, or even slightly increased. Such intense training is probably necessary to preserve some of the training-associated adaptations that may be lost with the marked reduction in training volume. Results from a well-known study of competitive cross-country runners training approximately 80 km/week revealed that these subjects improved their performances more when they followed a low-volume, high-intensity taper for 7 days compared to a low-volume (30 km/week) low-intensity taper or no running at all (Shepley et al., 1992). Of interest was that the low-volume, high-intensity taper (which consisted of between 3-5 x 500 meter repetitions in 70-75 seconds with 6-7 minutes recovery between runs) resulted in a total weekly running volume of less than 10 km!
The final characteristic of a successful taper relates to the frequency of training sessions: the athlete should reduce the total number of sessions by no more than 30% (Houmard and Johns 1994). Any further reduction may result in a decrement in performance, because the athlete may lose the "feel" for the activity. Swimmers in particular often voice this complaint if they are forced to miss pool sessions for more than several days.
My impression is that most endurance athletes, particularly long-distance runners and cyclists, do not taper sufficiently prior to competitions. These athletes fear that one- or two-week reduction in their training schedule will result in a drastic loss of fitness, and ultimately, an inferior performance to that they would have achieved if they had trained hard right up to the event. But the published evidence indicates that most well-trained individuals can expect a performance improvement of up to 3% above their seasonal best time following a taper.
Modeling effects of the taper
Several sports scientists, most notably Eric Banister and colleagues, have developed complex mathematical models to try to predict the effects of training on performance. They assume that the intensity and duration of a training bout have a reproducible effect on an athlete's state of fitness (which enhances performance) and fatigue (which reduces performance). They also assume that the fitness resulting from a given bout decays at a slower rate than the fatigue. It follows that the athlete will get the most benefit from a given bout some time after the bout, when fatigue has mostly decayed away but some fitness is still present. Hence the need to taper.
According to these models, any training done in the last 12-14 days before a major competition has a negative effect on subsequent performance (see for example, Morton, 1997). Imagine telling an athlete not to train at all in the 12-14 days before a major event! It would take a brave coach and a faithful athlete to implement such a strategy. I think more work needs to be done on these models before athletes can use them. The idea of losing "feel" has to be included, for example. Maybe fatigue also decays faster when the bouts are shorter, which would explain why such bouts seem to be beneficial in the taper (Hopkins, 1993). Until more research is done, the taper will continue to be a blend of science and art.
Hawley, J.A. and Burke, L.M. (1998). Peak Performance: Training and Nutritional Strategies for Sport. Sydney: Allen and Unwin.
Hopkins, W.G. (1993). New guidelines for hard training. New Zealand Coach, 2, 16-20.
Houmard, J.A. and Johns, A. (1994). Effects of taper on swim performance. Practical implications. Sports Medicine, 17, 224-232.
Morton, R.H. (1997). Modeling training and overtraining. Journal of Sports Sciences, 15, 335-340.
Shepley, B., MacDougall, J.D., Cipriano, N., Sutton, J.R., Tarnopolsky, M.A., Coates, G. (1992). Physiological effects of tapering in highly trained athletes. Journal of Applied Physiology 72, 706-711.