For months you have been training for a certain goal. You have already done all the workouts and it won’t be long before you can put the hammer down. It is then advisable to start tapering. If you do this well, you can improve between 0.5% and 6%. In this article we will describe what tapering is, why you should and in some cases should not or taper differently and how you can best approach this in a practical sense.
What is tapering?
Tapering is reducing the training load in the final period before your goal. 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 appear more rested at the start. At the moment you start the taper period, you have actually done all the training work and the only thing you can still gain at that moment is reducing 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 tapering?
How you appear at the start of your goal is largely determined by your stamina. You have built up this physical condition by training. 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 degree 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 be able to perform at your best, because you are simply still tired. When you have done little training, your fatigue will be low, but your condition will also be low in this case. Also in this case you will not appear at the start in your best shape. When you start tapering, you will look for the optimum of this 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 results in better performance.
How should I taper?
As discussed earlier, there are multiple ways to reduce training load. Research shows that not every way of reducing training load is equally effective. The taper period can last between 3 and 28 days. Especially with mainly concentric loads without much muscle damage, as is the case with cyclists, the taper is usually a maximum of a 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 very specific and therefore resemble the effort for which you are training as much as possible.
This strategy is quite easy to apply when you have only one goal where you want to peak. If you have multiple goals or, for example, ride races weekly during the season, this strategy is not possible. 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 tapering. Also, factors such as acclimatizing to a different climate, performing at altitude or the jet lag after a long trip can have a big influence on the best way to tapering.
If you want to get the most out of yourself, tapering is absolutely recommended. However, it is not always possible to use the most optimal strategy. Also, logistical or other external factors can play a role in planning a taper period. It is therefore advisable to determine together with your coach which goal you attach the most value to and how you can tapering as well as possible. And perhaps the most important: trust your condition, do not continue training too long.