What is a “taper”?
Endurance sports is heavily reliant upon developing fitness through the accumulation of training volume and intensity over weeks, months, and even years in preparation for competition. However, in order to perform at one’s best come race day, particularly a key race on an athlete’s calendar, an effective taper is critical to ensuring a higher likelihood of success and the maximization of that athlete’s performance potential. Most endurance athletes have heard of the term “taper”, but what does it mean, what is the science behind it, and what does an effective taper look like?
As with many things in the exercise science world, the answer to some of these questions is “it depends”. Designing an effective taper is both an art and a science. Luckily, we have a lot of science to justify the taper and some basic parameters surrounding how it should look in general. However, very specific, minute details are more of the art piece that the coach or athlete is in control of.
As an athlete trains throughout a competitive season, they build fitness, particularly in endurance sport, by increasing their training volume, training intensity, or both. This increase in training intensity or volume is needed to stimulate improvements in fitness. However, along the way, athletes also accumulate fatigue, both physiological and psychological in nature. This fatigue masks an athletes performance, putting a hindrance on their ability to perform at their best when under the fatigue. A few weeks before a major competition, an athlete typically enters a taper phase in which the training stimulus is reduced to allow for recovery of performance while minimizing any potential loss of fitness. I like to think of the taper as “sharpening an athlete’s sword” for competition. The goal of the taper is not to train too much, but it is also certainly not to train too little. So, how much should one train? What does the taper look like? Let’s dive into the science.
What is the science behind an effective taper?
When it comes to the taper, there are a variety of definitions out there in the research literature, but a common one is as follows. The taper can be thought of as “a progressive linear or non-linear reduction of the training load during a variable period of time, to reduce physiological and psychological stress of daily training and optimize sports performance” (2). When designing a taper, the variables that can be manipulated include:
Duration of the taper
I will be covering the different types of tapers and what science suggests is the best way to manipulate the above variables to maximize performance.
Types of Tapers
There are three main types of tapers:
The step taper involves an immediate, large reduction in training volume to a level that remains constant leading up to competition day.
An exponential taper involves an immediate large drop in training volume followed by a progressively lesser and lesser drop in volume as competition day approaches.
Exponential tapers can be “slow decay” or “fast decay” in nature, with slow decay tapers being a bit less extreme in the reduction in training volume compared to fast decay.
A linear taper is a steady and progressive reduction in training volume. I would consider this the most common type of taper approach that athletes and coaches take due to its simplicity.
See Figure 1 below for a representation of the three different types of tapers (2):
Figure 1. Schematic representation of different types of tapers
How to manipulate training variables in a taper?
Research tends to suggest that, with an effectively designed and well-executed taper, an athlete can expect to see a 2-3% improvement in performance on average, but this improvement can range anywhere from 0-6% depending on the athlete (2). This might not sound like much, but for well-trained athletes that are attempting to be competitive in a race, this can be the difference between winning and losing.
So, how does one effectively design a taper? A meta-analysis by Bosquet and colleagues from 2007 (1) analyzed and compared progressive tapers (linear and exponential) to step tapers and found the following:
A decrease in training volume tends to demonstrate the largest effects on performance when compared to a reduction in training intensity or frequency, so a reduction in training volume should be prioritized whereas training intensity and frequency should remain about the same as they were prior to the taper.
A taper duration of ~8-14 days seems to yield the largest effect on performance, with tapers shorter or longer producing lesser effects on performance.
Both step tapers and progressive tapers seem to be effective, but progressive tapers (linear and exponential) produced a statistically significant, small effect on performance when compared to step tapers.
The following table is taken from this paper by Bosquet and colleagues (1), and I have highlighted the findings for each training variable that yielded the largest effect size on performance so you can see the characteristics that should make up an effective, evidence-based taper.
Table 1. Effects of moderator variables on effect size for taper-induced changes in performance
Why does a taper work?
So, we have discussed the “how” and “what” of the taper, but what about the “why”? Why does a taper work to improve performance so effectively when done right? Well, there are a variety of factors, and at the most basic level, a taper helps to shed fatigue so that performance potential is maximized. The effects of a taper are physiological and psychological in nature. In other words, the taper helps to reduce an athlete’s physiological fatigue as well as their psychological and emotional fatigue. This shedding of fatigue allows improved performance to show up in competition.
Why can’t one just rest completely when tapering? If an athlete were to take 1-2 weeks off of training leading into competition day, the athlete would be extremely well rested, but they would begin to lose fitness as fitness loss begins to occur within 7-14 days of complete rest. Therefore, the athlete needs to maintain most of their intensity and frequency they had prior to the taper to maintain their fitness and to stay “sharp” so that they don’t feel flat and sluggish come the day they need to perform. This is really where the art comes in as while an effective taper might look like an 8-14-day period of gradually reduced volume over time, the exact make-up of the day-to-day sessions is up to the coach and/or athlete. There are no secret workouts that must be included within a taper, it just needs to work for the athlete and make them feel confident and prepared to compete. This is much less a science and more of an art form. This is where coaching can get really difficult as there is no ”one size fits all” approach.
Let’s tie is all together here one final time. We know that a taper definitely works, and it is particularly important for athletes that are trying to peak for important competitions as there is research to suggest that an effectively designed and well-executed taper can improve performance by 2-3% on average. The best approach when designing a taper likely includes an 8-14-day taper consisting of a progressive (linear or exponential) reduction in training volume by ~40-60% of pre-taper loads, and maintenance of training intensity and frequency. I have summarized the research discussed above and some additional research literature not discussed above in a succinct table below that describes an evidence-based approach to a taper. Note that the taper variable manipulation is broken down by experience level of the athlete within the table, providing a more granular approach depending on the athlete’s experience level. This table can be incredibly useful for summarizing everything discussed herein as well as for a “quick reference” guide that you can print out and glance at when designing a taper for yourself or your athletes you work with. I hope you found this discussion of a rather complex topic both simple (as simple as a complex topic can be) and useful.
Table 2. Optimal Tapering Prescription (1,3,5)
1. Bosquet L, Montpetit J, Arvisais D, & Mujika J. Effects of tapering on performance: A Meta-Analysis. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 2007.
2. Mujika, I., & Padilla, S. (2003). Scientific bases for precompetition tapering strategies. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 35, 1182–1187.
3. Pritchard H, Keogh J, Barnes, M, & McGuigan, M. Effects and mechanisms of tapering in maximizing muscular strength. Strength Cond J 37(2): 72-83, 2015.
4. Pyne DB, Mujika I, Reilly T. Peaking for optimal performance: Research limitations and future directions. Journal of sports sciences. 2009 Feb 1;27(3):195-202.
5. Wilson JM & Wilson, GJ, A practical approach to the taper. Strength Cond J 30(2): 10-17, 2008.
Happy training and racing!
-Ryan Eckert, MS, CSCS