Know that tapering without the appropriate training stimulus within the taper and detraining or a loss of fitness occurs. Without taper and holding training constant at a low to medium level, fitness increases cease and a performance plateau is reached. Holding training constant at relatively high levels risks overtraining and injury. Ever-increasing training loads, even at relatively small increases, will eventually result in overtraining or injury when the athlete reaches a breaking point.
Those that end up ill or injured usually lose significant amounts of valuable event preparation time due to recovery and rebuilding of fitness.
What is the Optimal Taper?
The optimal taper time depends on the goal event or events, the volume and intensity of training preceding taper and individual response to tapering.
Practical Application and Rules of Thumb
I've coached a wide range of cyclists and triathletes. Goal event distances and finish times vary significantly from one hour to 17 hours in a single day. Some athletes race multiday events. Athlete level varies from beginner to professional. Weekly training hours vary from no more than five hours per week to around 30 hours.
With all these athlete samples available to me, the answer for the best taper is...it depends. It depends on the items listed in the "what is the optimal taper" section.
That said, I can give you some general rules of thumb from the large number of successful athletes I've coached:
- If you are tapering training as part of a rest/recovery period (not for a specific race performance) during a training block, cut training volume by approximately 40- to 70-percent of the biggest week of training preceding the recovery week. Maintain some intensity in that week to equal to no more than 20-percent of the overall training volume as a starting point. Most of the time, it is best to include small amounts of intensity in training at least every other day. These time segments can be as small as 10 seconds and usually no longer than 20 minutes.
- Some cyclists need a rest/recovery period of seven days in normal training. Others do best on five. Still others feel best after 10 days of reduced volume. Life demands have as much, or more, to do with optimal recovery periods as training load.
- Cyclists training for a series of races over the course of five to six months may place races at the end of a recovery week as the majority of intensity for that week.
- Riders tapering volume for key events will typically have one, and no more than three, such events within a six to 10-month period where training is tapered for more than seven to 10 days.
- Cyclists doing longer single-day races that take over five hours or multi-day events, generally need more taper days than those doing one-day events lasting under three hours.
- For riders doing ultra events taking 10 to 24 hours, I will often use a 21-day taper. The taper takes two shapes. The first taper is a large training week followed by a rest week (the first seven days). Then there is a moderate volume training week (the second seven days) followed by a very low volume training block (usually five or six days) with the race at the end of the last week. The second shape is a large training week followed by a week that is roughly 80-percent of the volume (the first seven days) of the biggest week. The second seven days is roughly 50-percent of the volume of the biggest week and the final five or six days is around 20- to 30-percent of the biggest week with the race at the end of that week. Intensity during those periods is maintained at around 20-percent. Intensity levels are is the same as prior training. In other words, ultra racers don't practice crit-style sprints during taper.
Often when cyclists "rest" for a period of time, they reduce training volume and eliminate intensity making all training aerobic. In some cases, cyclists completely eliminate multiple training sessions. We know this is not the optimal way to prepare for an important race.
When cyclists "taper" training for the effect of optimizing performance, then some race-level intensity is kept in training while overall training volume is decreased. I typically taper cyclists' training volume for some seven to 21 days, depending on the athlete profile. Race-specific intensity is kept in the plan, beginning at around 20-percent of overall training volume and then adjusted for specific athlete profiles.
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