How do I reach my peak form?
For months you have been training towards a certain goal. You have done all the workouts and it won’t be long until the starting gun. When is it advisable to start tapering? If you do this well, you can improve by between 0.5% and 6%. In this article we explain what tapering means, why you should taper and in some cases should not or taper differently and how you can best put it into practice.
What is tapering?
Tapering is reducing the training load in the final period before your goal event. It may sound contradictory, because you still want to train hard to build up as much fitness as possible. But the idea behind it is to arrive more rested at the starting line. The moment you start the taper period, you have actually done all the training work and the only thing you can still benefit from at that point in time is reducing your fatigue. You can lower the training load by training for less time (volume), by making the training sessions less demanding (intensity) or by reducing the number of training sessions (frequency).
Why should I taper?
How you fit you are at the starting line of your goal race or ride is largely determined by your stamina. You have built up this physical condition by training in the previous weeks and months. Besides fitness, fatigue also has a big influence on how you will perform during your goal event. This can be put in the following equation:
Form = fitness – fatigue
Your form indicates the level of performance at a given moment. So when you have trained a lot, your condition will be good, but you will still be tired from all the training work you have done. At that moment you will not perform at your best, because, simply, you are still tired. When you have done little training, your fatigue will be low, but your condition will also be low. So you will not appear at the start in your best shape. When you start tapering, you will look for the optimum form. After a period of taper, your muscle glycogen stores will have been replenished, you will have produced more red blood cells and the activity of oxidative enzymes will also be higher than when you have chosen not to taper. This all leads to a better performance.
How should I taper?
As mentioned above, there are three ways to reduce the training load. Research shows that not every one of those is equally effective. The taper period can last between 3 and 28 days. With mainly concentric loads that cause little muscle damage, as is the case with cyclists, a taper can be shorter, usually a maximum of 5 to 14 days. Furthermore, you should especially reduce the volume of the training sessions considerably. A 40% to 60% reduction in the volume of training sessions appears to be the best strategy. The distribution of intensity and frequency of the workouts should remain the same. Furthermore, the intensity during your workouts should be as specific to the goal you have been training for as possible. If you are going to ride a long, mountain cyclosportive, then training on short sprints is not very useful.
This strategy is quite easy to apply when you have only one goal where you want to be in peak form for. If you have multiple goals or, for example, ride races weekly during the season, this strategy is not practical. Tapering for two weeks before each race would result in a big decrease in fitness and ultimately your form. So in that case you will have to prioritize your different goals. Depending on how important the goal is, you and your coach will determine the best way to taper. Also, factors such as acclimatizing to a different climate, performing at altitude or jet lag after a long trip can have a big influence on the best way to taper.
If you want to get the most out of yourself, tapering towards a big event is strongly recommended. However, it is not always possible to employ the optimal strategy as logistical or other external factors can play a role in planning a taper period. It is therefore advisable to discuss with your coach what the best strategy should be. And perhaps the most important advice: trust your condition and all the previous hard work and do not continue training too deep into the final days before the targeted event.