The Art of Tapering

“This margin of gain, over such a short period, is almost impossible by any other legal means”

Summer is the time when most cyclists target their priority event of the year – that key day in which a year’s work and hopes are invested.

The event may have pre-occupied your thoughts from the end of the previous season. Visons of a good result sustained you through the hard winter slog and those crucifying sessions that brought you into form for the competition season. Hopes of marginal gain on the big day  justified the money you’d spend on equipment, nutrition and travel.

Yet, while most riders design their yearly training to peak for that one ‘A-priority’ event, some don’t put the same emphasis on the short taper period just prior to it.

However, most studies have shown that proper tapering can give improvements in performance of between 2% and 4%.

This margin of gain, over such a short period, is almost impossible by any other legal means!

Fitness Vs Form

It may seem obvious to say that performance on the big day will depend on your fitness. However, this is not quite accurate. More precisely, it will depend on your form.

Form can be described as the balance between fitness and freshness. So, for example, if you go into an event technically fit but fatigued – i.e. in poor form – then your performance will be impaired.

Fitness is built slowly but fatigue can be brought on relatively quickly. In many cases, riders will cram in those last few hard sessions to try and peak their performance before the key event. These sessions may have little or no overall effect on improving fitness, but they can ruin your form. In this way, instead of gaining that key 2% to 4%, you can lose a lot more if your form is damaged.

Therefore, the art of tapering is finding that perfect balance between fitness and form. It’s about enhancing freshness, while minimising fitness loss. Get this right and you’ll have perfect form on the big day.

However, like most things in sport, there is no perfect formula for developing that elusive, perfect tapering plan. This is why it can be seen as an art as much as a science – there are so many variables. A multi-day event like the Raid Pyrénéen, for example, will require a much different tapering strategy to a road race. A 40k time-trial will be different yet again, as will be a track event which may last only minutes. Also, every athlete is different and it may take experience to judge it right.

Nevertheless, some basics will help you to plan your taper strategy.

The Basic Strategy

In general, endurance fitness is built slowly and declines slowly. Knocking off endurance in the tapering period will reduce the overall accumulated endurance base very little, but may contribute a lot to freshness.

On the other hand, high intensity fitness can be built more quickly on an endurance base and, more crucially, also declines more quickly. This loss needs to be minimized.

In addition, the body needs rest to adapt optimally to the peaking of the previous few weeks, and enough good quality rest must be factored in to allow for this recovery.

Therefore, taking these basics, we can see that an overall strategy should focus on reduced volume while maintaining a certain level of intensity, combined with general rest and recovery.

The Variables

Some of the following variables may be taken into account when planning your tapering strategy – these will have to be balanced and juggled to give the best result for your particular event and physiology:

Duration of Taper

Tapering can last for anything from 4 days to a number of weeks, depending on the event and your own recovery needs which will be learned only though experience. In general, longer events require longer tapering. Those with the highest levels of fitness will benefit more from longer tapers. Older riders will need longer tapers.

Intensity during Taper

A key point is to maintain competition-level intensity during the taper period, but perhaps reducing its volume slightly. Intensity is important to maintain key variables such as blood volume, muscle glycogen concentrations and muscle strength. On the other hand, lower level intensity, such as endurance rides, can be reduced by anything for 20% to 50%.

Frequency during Taper

How often you train can be reduced by up to 25% for those who train most days, but less so for those who are confined to fewer training days in the week. It’s important to keep the legs fresh by not reducing the frequency too much, and some of these sessions might be short recovery rides with very low intensity.

Volume during Taper

The total amount of time you spend training can be reduced by up to 50%, but phased gradually. For very long or multi-day events for example, volume in a two-week taper period might be reduced by 25% in the first week and 50% in the second.

Other Considerations

The following are some other things to keep in mind during the taper period:

  • Don’t try anything new or take last-minute-advice which you had not planned for
  • Don’t try to make up any training shortfall in the few days prior to an event
  • Maintain good nutrition habits, but reduce volume slightly to avoid gaining weight
  • Get as much good-quality rest as you can, especially sleep
  • Maximize any other techniques you use for recovery, such as massage and stretching
  • Travel can be stressful and tiring – try to reduce this by having your travel, accommodation and packing plans made well in advance.

Finally, proper tapering requires confidence and courage. It takes discipline and belief to fight the feeling that your hard-won fitness is slipping away while you are cutting back on the training, and to resist the urge to give that last crucial period everything you’ve got.

If you are working with a coach – who may be best placed to protect you from your own impulses – you must have trust in his or her experience, judgement and advice.

If in doubt, just keep in mind the possibility of that potential 2% to 4% gain if you get it right for the day!

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