Tapering to Achieve Peak Race Day Performance

Tapering to Achieve Peak Race Day Performance

Authored by Brady Holmer • 
March 12, 2019
 • 10 min read
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The big race is near, put your feet up, and relish the taper.

Tapering is the gradual reduction of training load in the period leading up to a goal race or event.1 This is usually the biggest event of the season.

The aim of tapering is to reduce the fatigue accumulated during training to achieve optimal performance. Here’s the theory behind tapering: true peak performance hasn’t occurred yet and with a break from hard training, significant improvements can be made in competition.

While tapering is part of most training cycles, the goal shouldn’t be to further achieve training-related gains. By taper time, athletes should have achieved most, if not all of the expected physiological adaptations to training.

Tapering Basics

Tapering doesn’t mean drastically reducing the amount of training all at once. It doesn’t mean sitting on the couch snacking the final week before the big race. Planned, progressive, systematic reduction is what makes tapering unique.

“It’s better to be undercooked than overdone on the starting line.” Brianna Stubbs

There are various patterns in which training load can be reduced depending on the event.2 In general, a marathon taper might occur for a longer period of time and maintain moderate volume. Shorter events and other strength-based sports might benefit from a steeper, more drastic volume reduction.

Reducing the Negative, Not Adding the Positive

Increased fitness can occur during the taper, but this isn’t a result of further adaptations gained through hard training. Performance measures improve because training load is reduced.

The beneficial effects on performance after a taper arise from reducing negative influences of training such as fatigue, energy deficit, and mood alterations. Studies of competitive swimmers during a taper period of 2 - 4 weeks indicate nearly 3% improvement in performance was due entirely to a reduction in the negative impacts of hard training.3

A tapering period unmasks training adaptations hidden under the cloud of fatigue.

An Art Rather Than a Science

To taper correctly requires balance, a Yin and Yang of quality training and rest days. Reducing overall training is a must, but it can be hard to get the perfect ratio of training stimulus. A perfectly balanced training load reduction should allow the elimination of fatigue without compromising fitness.3

How athletes respond to reduced load will involve preferences, training experience, and tolerance. Tapering should be personalized, just like a training plan. An athlete accustomed to a high training load may not respond well to a dramatic reduction in volume. Some athletes go stir-crazy if they rest too much and sabotage themselves mentally. Know yourself and how you tolerate different amounts of training and rest.

Tapering is a mental game too. It is often hard to shift away from the training mindset.

There is no training period that athletes and coaches feel more insecure about than tapering. Various factors such as fear of detraining (discussed later) or weight gain are valid concerns, but preventable when tapered right.

Step Taper

A single step taper involves a sudden reduction in training load. This lower load is maintained until the end of the taper period, usually race day.

An example of a step taper might be a one-time 50% reduction in training load. If you’re currently training at 45 miles per week, tapering would involve lowering weekly mileage to ~20 miles for the duration of the taper. Step taper has shown to be the least effective tapering method. Such a large sudden cut in volume may result in staleness.

Linear Taper

Linear tapering strategies maintain the highest volume of all the tapering patterns. This pattern is characterized by a gradual and standard reduction in current training load.

An example would be reducing daily training volume by two miles per day up until race day. For an athlete running 45 miles per week (or about seven miles per day), the first week might involve running five miles each day, then three per day the next week, and so on. Since linear tapering maintains a higher overall volume, it might be best suited for longer-duration endurance events or athletes who want to slowly decrease their training volume.

Exponential Taper

Reduction in training volume using an exponential taper can be either fast (so called “fast decay”) or slow (“slow decay”). In each case, the training load is reduced in proportion to current training volume. An example might be reducing weekly mileage by 30%. For someone running 45 miles per week, this would mean running 31.5 miles in the first taper week, 22 miles the next week, and so on.

A fast decay taper would reduce weekly mileage over a shorter amount of time, such as a few days. This may provide more time to overcome the fatigue accumulated during the final weeks of training. A slow decay taper would reduce weekly mileage more gradually over a longer tapering period, perhaps two weeks or more. Generally, longer duration events require a slightly longer taper period.

Marathon tapering might take the form of a fast-decay taper. Comparison of different taper types in triathletes indicated that a fast decay exponential taper led to better performance measures post-taper.4 Endurance sports probably benefit from a taper period maintaining a relatively high volume.

A chart that illustrates the different tapering strategies
Maintain performance during the taper

Learn from our experts how to train and taper for optimal performance on race day.

Your Body During Tapering

Taper time might leave you feeling fresh and energized. For some, reducing hard training can result in sluggishness and anxiety. Have no fear. If you taper correctly, you’ll maintain and perhaps even improve fitness, no matter how you feel during the process.

By placing less stress on the body, tapering allows for regeneration of many systems involved in performance. Not only do aspects of performance recover, but fitness can improve if you taper right.

Aerobic Fitness Gets a Boost

Several studies indicated V02 max, one of the most important determinants of endurance exercise performance, is maintained or even improved during the taper period. With rest, your body becomes a better oxygen-using machine. After as little as two weeks of reduced training volume, V02 max increased in trained athletes anywhere between 4.5% - 9.1%.

At minimum, tapering won’t harm V02 max. Performance will still get a boost in other ways due to reduced fatigue and increased exercise economy. Efficiency improves when your body becomes better able to use oxygen. This is known to occur after a taper in athletes, due to an increased amount of oxygen-carrying red blood cells. As much as a 15% increase in blood volume has been observed in distance runners following a tapering regimen.5 Increased oxygen carrying capacity allows for optimal pace to be sustained for longer.

Weight Gain or Muscle Loss Concerns

Athletes might be concerned that weight will skyrocket during the taper since they are exercising less and burning less energy. Sure, since you will be training less, you probably need to eat a bit less as well. A well-formulated nutrition plan maximizes nutrient density while lowering total caloric intake, maintaining weight during a tapering period.

Similarly, muscle mass is maintained during tapering if the intensity is kept high. A two-week taper with low volume has been shown to maintain muscle mass and improve strength gains in trained weightlifters and track and field athletes.6,7 Again, this occurs when strength training intensity is maintained at a high level.

Metabolic Changes

Metabolically, tapering results in lower caloric expenditure during a typical day. This is natural, since this training period involves a lower amount of physical activity and more rest days.

However, lowering energy expenditure during a taper period benefits race day readiness. Reduced training volume means you’ll be using less muscle glycogen during training, allowing post-taper muscle glycogen stores to increase. Some studies have shown muscle glycogen stores to increase up to 15% post-taper.5

Greater fuel availability may be a reason for performance benefits after tapering, especially in long-duration endurance sports.

A higher amount of muscle glycogen synthesis is observed when a carbohydrate-containing meal is consumed along with HVMN Ketone.8 Raising BHB in the body by using ketone supplementation is a strategy to maximize glycogen stores in the final weeks leading up a main event. Recovery is also enhanced in athletes supplementing with HVMN Ketone; a piece of qualitative feedback we’ve heard from professional cyclists using HVMN Ketone is less soreness and better recovery. Since recovery is an essential part of tapering, the applications here are wide-ranging.

If intensity is maintained, you may even increase muscle size and boost oxidative capacity. A low-volume / high-intensity taper has been shown to increase Type II (fast twitch) muscle fiber size by 11% and increase the number of Type I (slow twitch) fibers in endurance athletes by ~7%.9 The tapered muscles also showed greater power producing capabilities.10 High volume training temporarily reduces the size and strength of individual muscle fibers, and tapering allows them to regenerate and possibly grow larger. Recovered muscles also improve their ability to use oxygen efficiently, generate greater force, and shorten at a faster speed.

Mood

Hard training induces some negative mood states such as depression, anger, and confusion. All of these can decrease following a taper.

Positive mood changes occur once training is reduced. Increased vigor–energy to train and compete–has been shown following tapering.11 This may be a result of reduced stress hormones (catecholamines). Improvements in athletic performance have been found to correlate with the reduction in norepinephrine that occurs in athletes who taper. Reducing overall psychological stress is an indicator of recovery and correct tapering.11

Fatigue and Effort Perception

Muscle power and strength also increase after tapering. These measures are usually suppressed during chronic endurance and strength training due to neuromuscular fatigue.

Tapering reduces neuromuscular fatigue caused by hard training. This allows for strength and power measures like vertical jump, squat, and bench press to “supercompensate” and improve.12 You need to continue to perform high-intensity workouts during the taper while reducing volume to realize these benefits.

Reducing the amount of physical and mental fatigue during a taper leads to a lower perception of effort. This means that goal race pace will feel easier. Many studies illustrate that following a multi-week taper, perceived exertion at the same exercise intensity is significantly reduced compared to pre-taper levels.13

An unexpected bonus of tapering might also be improved sleep quality, where maximal recovery to takes place. Perception of effort is increased in athletes who get inadequate sleep,14 so increased shuteye during the tapering phase of a training cycle boosts mental and physical performance.

An image of a female runner in stride, showing what happens to the body while tapering

Perfecting the Taper

Frequency, intensity, and volume can be thought of as the spices in the training recipe. Tapering calls for an adjustment to each spice; adding a bit more of one and removing some of another. Try to keep the recipe balanced instead of going Emeril with the spices.

Turn Down the Volume

Correct tapering requires decreasing the total number of miles run, reps lifted, or laps swam. How much should you reduce volume to realize optimal performance gains?

Most tapering studies have shown linear or exponential tapering strategies involving a progressive reduction of 41% - 60% of the usual training volume lead to increased performance.15

In a marathon tapering plan, the long run is an important component. Marathon tapering should still include this long run as part of the tapering period. However, it’s suggested to reduce the long run distance about 10% - 20% three weeks out from the race, and 50% - 60% in the final few weeks. This is mainly for the psychological benefit of knowing you can still maintain endurance. The last long run won’t give you a fitness boost, but psychologically it’s important.

Keep Intensity High

Research shows gains cannot be maintained during a taper when intensity is reduced, even if volume and frequency of training stay the same. A taper reducing intensity actually leads to lower endurance compared to one that lowers volume and/or frequency while maintaining intensity.16

High-intensity workouts are essential during taper time to maintain training adaptations.

A high-intensity, low-volume taper is optimal. Speed sessions and tempo runs at goal race pace should stay in your plan, just lower the amount of reps or miles run.

Reduce Training Frequency

For athletes who are highly trained or involved in skill-dependent sports, maintaining training frequency at 80% or more of pre-taper levels may prevent staleness and improve performance. Cut out a few training sessions during the week, or remove a double workout from your plan.

If you’re looking to reduce frequency a bit more, 30% - 50% reductions in frequency are tolerable. An easy way to cut frequency by 30% could be to train every third day. Continue to include key workouts like long runs and speed sessions at goal pace to prevent staleness.

How Long Should You Taper?

Just like hard work, recovery can be overdone. Tapering for too long can lead to a slight loss of training adaptations. Working backwards from your goal race date can help determine when to start your taper.

In general, a two week taper has been shown to be optimal, but benefits have also been shown with durations lasting 4 - 28 days. Individualizing this aspect of tapering is key. Some athletes quickly lose fitness, while others can hold onto adaptations for much longer with a small training load.

Functional Overreaching Before the Taper

How you train going into taper time can impact how much you adapt, and the performance benefits you experience after. Putting in a final training cycle of hard work just before taper time might be a strategy to boost performance even further. But don’t forget: ensure you don’t overtrain, which can impair adaptations and leave you more tired at the starting line.

Functional overreaching in the final weeks preceding a taper period can enhance adaptations. This is known as “supercompensation.” Entering the taper period in an acutely-fatigued state might provide a boost in adaptive responses once training load is reduced. Endurance athletes who underwent short term overtraining for three weeks before entering a four-week taper experienced greater gains in V02 max than a normally trained group who also tapered.17

Magnitude of Benefits: How Much Should I Expect to Improve?

Another common mistake when it comes to tapering: athletes and coaches often expect miracles. It’s a misconception you’ll feel absolutely fantastic immediately after starting a taper, which can lead to disappointment if you feel anything less than perfect.

Athletes can feel lethargic and restless during a taper–that’s OK. Be aware this may happen, and trust you’re reaping the benefits of the rest days even if you may feel lousy.

For most endurance sports, it’s reasonable to expect improvements anywhere from 1% - 6% with the average around 2% - 3%. This is substantial. If your goal race is a half marathon, a 2% improvement could mean minutes shaved off of a personal record.

If you need further convincing that percentages matter, note that the difference between the gold medalist and fourth place in swimming at the 2000 Sydney Olympics was 1.6%, far lower than the improvement seen after most tapering studies.18 Seemingly small gains have huge impacts. Cyclists using HVMN Ketone performed 2% - 3% better in a 30-minute time trial, riding 400m further. If you’re looking for an additional boost come race day, consider supplementing with HVMN Ketone, the world’s first ketone ester drink.

A female runner through for different strategies for tapering: she is running uphill in the first image, sprinting in the second, stretching in the third and resting in the fourth

Listen to Your Body

When tapering, it’s important to remember no two athletes will respond identically. Finding the sweet spot of volume, intensity, frequency, and taper duration result in the greatest performance on race day.

The importance of routine cannot be understated. Some athletes will do just fine continuing training rituals with only a slight reduction in volume or frequency while others may improve by dramatically cutting volume.

Find a strategy that works, and experiment with a tapering strategy that leaves you fresh, fit, and ready to achieve peak performance for you upcoming goal race.

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Scientific Citations

1.Mujika I, Padilla S. Scientific bases for precompetition tapering strategies. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2003;35(7):1182-7.
2.Pyne DB, Mujika I, Reilly T. Peaking for optimal performance: Research limitations and future directions. J Sports Sci. 2009;27(3):195-202.
3.Mujika I, Busso T, Lacoste L, Barale F, Geyssant A, Chatard JC. Modeled responses to training and taper in competitive swimmers. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1996;28(2):251-8.
4.Banister EW, Carter JB, Zarkadas PC. Training theory and taper: validation in triathlon athletes. Eur J Appl Physiol Occup Physiol. 1999;79(2):182-91.
5.Shepley B, Macdougall JD, Cipriano N, Sutton JR, Tarnopolsky MA, Coates G. Physiological effects of tapering in highly trained athletes. J Appl Physiol. 1992;72(2):706-11.
6.Seppanen, S. Effects of two different tapering models on maximal strength gains in recreationally strength trained men. University of Jyvaskyla, 2018.
7.Zaras ND, Stasinaki AN, Krase AA, et al. Effects of tapering with light vs. heavy loads on track and field throwing performance. J Strength Cond Res. 2014;28(12):3484-95.
8.Holdsworth, D.A., Cox, P.J., Kirk, T., Stradling, H., Impey, S.G., and Clarke, K. (2017). A Ketone Ester Drink Increases Postexercise Muscle Glycogen Synthesis in Humans. Med Sci Sports Exerc.
9.Trappe S, Costill D, Thomas R. Effect of swim taper on whole muscle and single muscle fiber contractile properties. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2000;32(12):48-56.
10.Neary JP, Martin TP, Quinney HA. Effects of taper on endurance cycling capacity and single muscle fiber properties. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2003;35(11):1875-81.
11.Hooper SL, Mackinnon LT, Howard ALF. Physiological and psychometric variables for monitoring recovery during tapering for major competition. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc 1999, (31) 8, 1205-1210.
12.Coutts A, Reaburn P, Piva TJ, Murphy A. Changes in selected biochemical, muscular strength, power, and endurance measures during deliberate overreaching and tapering in rugby league players. Int J Sports Med. 2007;28(2):116-24.
13.Mujika I, Padilla S, Pyne D, Busso T. Physiological changes associated with the pre-event taper in athletes. Sports Med. 2004;34(13):891-927.
14.Fullagar HH, Skorski S, Duffield R, Hammes D, Coutts AJ, Meyer T. Sleep and athletic performance: the effects of sleep loss on exercise performance, and physiological and cognitive responses to exercise. Sports Med. 2015;45(2):161-86.
15.Bosquet L, Montpetit J, Arvisais D, Mujika I. Effects of tapering on performance: a meta-analysis. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2007;39(8):1358-65.
16.Hickson RC, Foster C, Pollock ML, Galassi TM, Rich S. Reduced training intensities and loss of aerobic power, endurance, and cardiac growth. J Appl Physiol. 1985;58(2):492-9.
17.Aubry A, Hausswirth C, Louis J, Coutts AJ, Le meur Y. Functional overreaching: the key to peak performance during the taper?. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2014;46(9):1769-77.
18.Mujika I, Padilla S, Pyne D. Swimming performance changes during the final 3 weeks of training leading to the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. Int J Sports Med. 2002;23(8):582-7.
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