Tapering before a competition—that is, significantly reducing your training load for one to two weeks to optimize your race-day performance—is a term as ubiquitous to endurance sports as carb loading. But how much should you taper? Is every exercise discipline created equal? What if you have a long race season ahead, how do you keep your body well-rested without losing fitness? Let’s dive in and break it down.
How and why does a taper work?
A taper can influence your entire physiology, for better or for worse. Cardiovascularly, for the less skilled athlete, you can expect to see oxygen uptake diminish during submaximal exercise performance. (1) On the plus side, blood and red cell volume tends to increase, and this is likely a main reason for performance improvement on race day. (2)
Metabolically, you’ll see an increase in muscle glycogen concentration and peak blood lactate concentration along with a decrease in blood creatine kinase. This essentially means you’re recovering from training and muscle damage. (3)
Perhaps the biggest physiological takeaway is the neuromuscular one: muscular strength and power improves secondary to muscle size and oxidative enzyme activity increases. (3)
What constitutes an effective taper?
First off, let’s clarify: All the research and training elements in this article are focused on endurance sports. A taper, in general, is the final phase in training where overall training load is reduced to decrease fatigue and optimize an athlete’s performance on race day. (4) When done well, tapering can improve maximal oxygen uptake, power, and general performance. There have been endurance improvements noted in VO2max by up to 4.2% and running economy by a staggering 6.3%. (5) For a trained individual, you might only see improvements of under 2% in either category. (4) That being said, even 1% improvement at an elite level could be the difference between being a world champion and being a middle-tier athlete.
A 2007 meta-analysis by Bosquet et al. (4) laid out an excellent summary and groundwork on how to hone the variables most important to your performance. Let’s start there for some context.
Building your perfect taper
You can build your perfect taper from five major variables:
- Taper length
- Training volume
- Training intensity
- Training frequency
- The pattern of your taper
Historically, a 14-day taper has been best researched and most studied. If we operate under the assumption that you’ve been in a period of overload training for two to four weeks prior to tapering, two weeks is an excellent time to begin decreasing your training load for your race. (6)
A 2019 study assessed how a compressed (six days of high-intensity training followed by a five-day step taper) taper period might influence elite cyclists’ performance. (6) They compared this to a standard 11-day step taper before race day; they found that the condensed protocol involving high-intensity workouts for six consecutive days might be superior to the traditional method. (6)
For those of you with a packed racing schedule, take note. As long as high intensity is a big part of your non-taper days, you should be able to tolerate fewer rest or taper days between race days.
Takeaway: A shorter taper may be more effective.
Don’t you love when the evidence is strong and you don’t have to read through a list of “buts” and “what ifs?” Training volume parameters for success when it comes to tapering are pretty darn simple. Decrease your training load by 41-60% from your maximal week. That’s the sweet spot for cyclists and swimmers. (3, 7) For runners, this still holds true, but a 21-40% reduction also has strong results. Talk to your coach for the nitty gritty—and also make notes in your training log during each and every taper phase. How are you feeling? And, most importantly, how do you feel/perform on race day? If something works well and you feel good, repeat it!
Takeaway: Decrease your volume 41-60%.
If you had to pick one thing to remember from this article, remember this: You need to continue to have the same intensity in your training during your taper. While you can adjust your volume and frequency by a particular amount, you should still have the same cardiovascular and physiologic demand on your system—albeit for shorter and less frequent bouts. (4)
Takeaway: Keep your training intensity the same!
A decrease in the frequency of your workouts during a taper is certainly common. Studies show, however, that if you can maintain the same frequency of workouts, you’ll have the most optimized race day performance.(3)
Takeaway: Keep your training frequency the same!
The concept here is that as you progress through your taper period, you decrease your overall training load while keeping your training intensity constant. The research is very strong: This is the best way to do a taper. (4)
Unlike a progressive taper, this type of taper uses a reduction in training load by a set percentage every incremental time block. You’re still decreasing your load over time, but this doesn’t usually translate to as substantial performance gains. (3)
Takeaway: Progressively taper!
What is the best type of taper?
What the literature has highlighted for the last 30 years is a common pattern: decreasing your training volume for the one to two weeks before a competition is effective to decrease your time to fatigue. If you want to maximize citrate synthase, total blood volume gains, and muscle glycogen concentration, you must maintain the same intensity of training despite cutting volume.(4)
While the science is there to show us best practices, there is also an element of tapering that can be unique, so it’s always worth leaning on your coach, your previous experience, and how your body is feeling to make the best decision for your training and racing schedule. Happy tapering!
1. Adrien Vachon, Nicolas Berryman, Iñigo Mujika, Jean-Baptiste Paquet, Denis Arvisais & Laurent Bosquet (2020): Effects of tapering on neuromuscular and metabolic fitness in team sports: a systematic review and meta-analysis, European Journal of Sport Science, DOI: 10.1080/17461391.2020.1736183
2. Shepley B, MacDougall JD, Cipriano N, Sutton JR, Tarnopolsky MA, Coates G. Physiological effects of tapering in highly trained athletes. J Appl Physiol (1985). 1992 Feb;72(2):706-11. doi: 10.1152/jappl.19220.127.116.116. PMID: 1559951.
3. 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. doi: 10.2165/00007256-200434130-00003. PMID: 15487904.
4. Bosquet, Laurent; Montpetit, Jonathan; Arvisais, Denis; Mujika, Iñigo. Effects of Tapering on Performance: A Meta-Analysis. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 39(8):p 1358-1365, August 2007. | DOI: 10.1249/mss.0b013e31806010e0
5. Denadai BS, Ortiz MJ, Greco CC, de Mello MT. Interval training at 95% and 100% of the velocity at VO2 max: effects on aerobic physiological indexes and running performance. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2006 Dec;31(6):737-43. doi: 10.1139/h06-080. PMID: 17213889.
6. Rønnestad BR, Vikmoen O. A 11-day compressed overload and taper induces larger physiological improvements than a normal taper in elite cyclists. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2019 Dec;29(12):1856-1865. doi: 10.1111/sms.13536. Epub 2019 Aug 29. PMID: 31410894.
7. Thomas L, Mujika I, Busso T. A model study of optimal training reduction during pre-event taper in elite swimmers. J Sports Sci. 2008 Apr;26(6):643-52. doi: 10.1080/02640410701716782. PMID: 18344135.