Most endurance athletes accept that tapering before a competition is beneficial, but few understand why.
A study was conducted in the 1990s by Canadian researchers at McMaster University in Ontario (Shepley et al. 1992). The trial was conducted for one week with experienced endurance athletes running approximately 50 miles a week in training. The athletes were split into three groups, each working on a different weekly training program. At the end of the week, the performance improvement for each group was checked. The results were as follows:
As shown in the table, group 3 achieved the best improvement in their performance (22%). Also, group 3 enjoyed four advantages over the other groups.
The athlete has improved the nervous system to control and coordinate better-rested muscles at faster running speeds. Similar tests have also concluded that there is an improvement in the neural system and achieving the above advantages. These are all very desirable in an athlete's preparation for a major competition.
What to do
If your total mileage is less than 50 miles a week and your event is less than one hour, then:
If your total mileage is more than 50 miles a week and your event is more significant than one hour, taper for 14 to 20 days; otherwise, use the same strategy.
Tapering in training
I use a four-week cycle with all my athletes, where the fourth week is an active rest and test week. In the fourth week, the training load is reduced by 70%, 2 or 3 tests at max effort are performed, and light sessions are included between tests. The tests are used to monitor progress made in the preceding three weeks of training, and the results are considered in planning the next 4-week cycle. If tapering in this way can affect your performance, then perhaps you should consider including tapering weeks in your season's training programs.
The following are examples of taper programs:
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