Monday, February 1, 2016

Race Period Concerns: Over-Tapering/Under-Tapering

by Alan Couzens, MS (Sports Science)

It seems that no matter which tapering strategy the coach and athlete decide on, there will almost certainly come a time close to the race when the athlete doubts the strategy. This is perfectly normal. The weird physical sensations that accompany the change in training that the taper brings, coupled with the stress of the situation make for some fertile ground for doubts to spring up. Without a smart strategy and a firm resolve, these doubts often breed dumb decisions.

So, what constitutes a smart taper?

A smart taper is optimally timed to coincide with that very brief sweet spot where the athlete has the the best combination of the freshness that comes from “freshening” while still not losing too much of the fitness that comes from training. Timing this peak is a very delicate dance made even more fragile by the fact that the optimal combination will be different for every athlete.

The elements that combine to create the perfect taper recipe for a given athlete are:

  1. Fitness - The greater the aerobic base of the athlete, the shorter the taper generally needs to be

  2. Race type - Paradoxically, the shorter the event, the longer the taper

  3. Gender/Body type - The bigger and more muscular the athlete, the longer the taper

Surprisingly, perhaps, the most common dumb decision that I see in super-fit, highly competitive triathletes is ignoring the first rule above and actually over-tapering -- dropping the workload in the final weeks too much. At very high levels of fitness the gap between the time it takes to shed fatigue and the time it takes to shed fitness narrows. If these athletes overdo the taper, they find themselves losing fitness and fatigue in almost equal parts and arriving at the start line feeling fresh as a daisy but with significantly less fitness in their legs than they may have had two or three weeks prior.

Often, this premature drop in training load and volume is unintentional and is more a result of an increase in intensity in an effort to “sharpen” the athlete. Long sharpening periods are inappropriate for endurance events of this duration.

On the flipside of the coin, under-tapering occurs when athletes fail to taper long enough to exploit the full performance benefit of freshening. This is especially common in new athletes who are nervous about dropping fitness leading into the event. This attitude is especially damaging during late race week when it becomes important to drop training load below the athlete’s chronic training load to allow supercompensation of glycogen stores to occur. Put more simply, in the last 72 hours pre-race, you want to be making deposits into your body’s glycogen account, not withdrawals.

While each athlete’s training response is highly individual and best determined through direct observation of that athlete, here are some quick and dirty guidelines based on my experience for the first factor (aerobic base/training load) to minimize the risk of the dreaded under-tapering or equally dreaded over-tapering.

  • Very high aerobic base/very high load (20-25 hours/week sustained load) - 18-23 days

  • High base/high load (16-20 hours/week sustained load) - 22-27 days

  • Medium base/medium load (12-16 hours/week sustained load) - 25-30 days

  • Low base/low load (8-12 hours/week sustained load) - 30+ days

The above guidelines assume that all are coming from similar (high) starting levels of relative fatigue. Of course, if a medium fitness athlete was time constrained to lower volume weeks for a period of time leading into the race, he is already somewhat fresh so a long taper is no longer appropriate.

Similar guidelines could be applied (or expanded upon) based on the size and muscularity of the athlete. For example, larger athletes should aim for greater than 4 weeks, smaller athletes under 3 weeks.

In addition to the duration guidelines, a fitter athlete won’t drop load as much as a less fit athlete. In other words, while an athlete with less aerobic base may reduce volume to 25% of normal in the week approaching the race, an athlete with more base will sustain a load closer to 50% of normal during the same week.

While peaking, an athlete optimally remains an art form, trying out the suggestions above might afford you a significant leg up on your competition. It’s not always the fittest athlete who wins.

Train smart.

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