Can You Trust Your Taper?

author - melissa witmer strength and conditioning

The taper is the key to getting the most out of your body when it counts the most.

Though the taper is a nice change of pace and an easing up of training, many athletes find the taper difficult psychologically. Cutting back on training will feel unnatural. Many athletes resist a proper taper because they unnecessarily fear that they will lose fitness or training adaptation.

To gain the benefits of tapering you must accept that you’ve already done the training that is going to dictate your physical performance for the weekend. Now you will get performance gain by full recovery from your training stimulus, not from any training stimulus itself.

Hopefully a greater understanding of proper tapering and what it can do for you will help you trust the process and peak at the right time.

 So, What is Tapering?

Tapering is the act of decreasing training volume with the goal of increasing performance for a very important competition.

Tapering has been shown to enhance performance in endurance athletes and in strength and power athletes. Increased performance is thought to come about for several reasons:

  • Full recovery from microtears in the muscles or other minor injuries.
  • A final supercompensation effect.
  • Changes in several physiological factors such as increased blood glycogen, increased red blood cell count, and favorable hormonal changes.

 What do we Really Know About the Taper?

Most research on tapering has been done with endurance athletes. What this research tells us is that during the taper several physiological changes occur in the body. The red blood cell count (and thus oxygen carrying capacity) of the body increases. Hormonal changes also occur. The testosterone/cortisol ratio increases. This means that the body is more in repair and build mode, and less in breakdown mode. (This finding may be more true for endurance athletes as they are more often in breakdown mode during training anyway). Research also shows increases in muscle glycogen levels and increases in power and neuromuscular function.

Research comparing rest only tapers, low volume medium intensity tapers, and low volume high intensity tapers show that low volume high intensity tapering causes the greatest positive effect.

Though most research on the taper involves endurance athletes, strong anecdotal evidence shows that tapering works for strength and power athletes too. Strength and conditioning coaches in all sports plan some sort of taper before the main competition of the season.

 How long should the taper last?

The taper is part art, and part science. A general recommendation is that the longer the athlete has been training, the longer the taper should be. For my athletes in The Ultimate Athlete Project, I plan a four week taper phase where the most dramatic reduction in training occurs in the third and fourth weeks. Some athletes will find a month long taper difficult to stick to or if an athlete has not been training as hard, they should not taper as long.

 What changes in the taper?

During the taper the variable that you’re changing is the volume of work. Volume of work decreases dramatically in the last two weeks of the taper. In the last week of the taper, my athletes are doing less than 30 % of the volume of a normal training week.

The volume of work is generally measured in sets and reps.  For a simple example, if your strength training normally involves 3 sets of each exercise, you can decrease the volume from three sets, to two sets, to one set in the two weeks leasing up to your main tournament. If you normally do 10 X 150 meter shuttles for your conditioning, you could cut back to 6, then cut back to 3 in the weeks leading up to competition.

 What stays the same?

The intensity of the work should stay the same. In fact, you will probably notice that you can increase the weight in some of your lifts as the taper starts taking effect. This is normal and totally fine to lift more, just don’t kill yourself going for a PR or anything. And do not fear lifting and training right up until the day before the event.

Stick with the types of workouts you’re familiar with. Maybe include workouts you find to be the most fun. Now is not the time to learn anything new. It’s the time for workouts that help you feel comfortable, relaxed, confident. Do the types of workouts you’re naturally good at.

Psychology AND Physiology

The taper has many physical benefits as we’ve already mentioned. But you can’t neglect your psychology.  If you don’t trust the taper, it simply won’t work for you.  The primary rule during the taper is to do no harm.  Do what makes you feel comfortable, confident, and ready to go.  Take notes on how you do the taper this season and how you felt on competition day so that you can make adjustments next season.   You can also practice your taper my doing a mini-taper 12 weeks before your main taper to see how your body and brain react.  By doing a practice run you can build confidence in the taper and better trust it when you need it most.

The taper is also a great time to work on your mental game.  Having shorter workouts frees up some time to do some visualization work. Construct a mental highlight reel to bolster your confidence. Do mental practice runs of the team playbook to help you fully prepare for any situation on the field.  Use the opportunity of the taper to get a mental as well as physical edge.

Congratulations on all of the hard work you’ve put in this season! Enjoy your taper, and most of all enjoy your upcoming tournament.