What the best way to taper for a race?

I’m sure that there are an infinite variety of ways to taper and just as many principles and theories about what works best to delivery peak performance on race day.  In the Wolverine Plan, Mike Caviston writes the following…

Tapering is the practice of reducing training volume & intensity prior to competition to ensure peak performance. While it is a common perception among athletes that a taper is necessary to allow maximal performance, this is not clearly supported by scientific research. The benefits of tapering are most evident in situations where athletes were clearly overtraining in the first place. In other words, the benefit is not so much the taper per se, but removing the negative effects of overtraining. In situations where training volume and intensity are properly controlled, the effects of tapering are less substantial. Now, this is not to say we won’t taper before important tests and competitions. We will. Rest assured that we have your best interests at heart. But some athletes expect a vacation and are disappointed when all they get is a modest reduction in a pretty demanding schedule. The fact is the only noticeable reduction in training will occur during the week prior to NCAAs. And the benefits are probably far more psychological than physical.

Needless to say, there are different view points, and in fact some research that contradicts this point of view.  For example this paper:

This paper is from 1992, and it is an interesting experiment.  It was a study of collegiate middle distance runners.  There were 9 participants that went through a 8 week training period where all of them followed the same training plan.  They were then divided into three groups of 3 and each group followed a different taper plan.  Then after four weeks they did another taper, and after 4 more weeks a final taper.  So each athlete used each taper once.  At the end of each taper, there was a series of performance and physiological tests including:

  • VO2Max
  • time to exhaustion at 1500m running pace
  • Strength
  • Blood lactate
  • Blood volume
  • Red Cell Volume

The three tapers were all 7 days long, day 1 and day 6 were both rest days.  The Low Intensity and High Intensity tapers both included warm ups in addition to the details below.

  • rest only
  • Low Intensity: 10km run at 57 to 60% VO2Max on day 1, 8km on day 2, and so on.
  • High Intensity: 5 x 500m interval at 115% VO2Max with 6 to 7 minutes rest between.  This is roughly 75 seconds of running in each interval, at roughly 1500m pace.  On day 2, 4×500, and so on.

The results are interesting.  Here is the money plot.

Screen Shot 2015-09-30 at 9.26.01 AM

The rest only taper resulted in a 3 percent decline in performance relative to tests right before the taper. A low intensity taper resulted in a 6% improvement. The high intensity taper resulted in a 22% improvement in time to exhaustion at 1500m pace.

This performance measure is backed up with the blood tests.

Screen Shot 2015-09-30 at 9.30.02 AM

Both blood volume and red cell volume were increased the most in the HIT group.

Based on this paper, I plan out tapers simply by counting back from race day as follows

  • Race day
  • rest day
  • 2 x 500 (or 1:30) with 5 min rests
  • 3 x 500 (or 1:30) with 5 min rests
  • 4 x 500 (or 1:30) with 5 min rests
  • 5 x 500 (or 1:30) with 5 min rests
  • rest day

I would do this for the most important race of a season.  For less important races, I would shorten the taper by 2 days and start with the 3 x 500.

I’d like to thank Ben Redman for pointing me to this paper.

Wednesday AM: 4×2′ / 3′ rest (on the erg)

I was suited up and ready.  I didn’t mind the wind (15-20mph) or the rain (torrential), but when I looked at the weather radar and saw that there were thunderstorm cells heading my way, I decided that doing the session on the erg would be the wiser (if less exciting) option.

I am tapering for the head race this weekend, and the best data that I have seen is that maintaining the intensity while cutting down the duration is the most effective way to maximize VO2Max on race day.  So, day 1 of the taper is:


  1. 4 x 2′ / 3′ rest
  2. rest taken as 30 seconds passive, 2′ active at 2:30 pace, 30 passive
  3. pace target: <1:40 (2K race pace)
  4. rate target ~ 30

Screen Shot 2015-09-30 at 8.34.56 AM


I did a 8 minute warmup.  basically 2:00 pace with 5 to 10 stroke bursts at 1:40 each minute.  It got the blood flowing and opened up the lungs.

Then into the main event.  The first interval was fine.  It started to bite in the last 30 seconds or so.  The next one bit with about 45 seconds to go, and so on.  The last interval was pretty tough through the whole last minute.  But there were no HD demons in intervals this short and very little pace fading at the end of each.  I was glad when it was over, but I felt like I had more to give.  The right feeling for a taper workout I suspect.

I did a “Happy Ending” cooldown.  8 minutes total.  The first 2′ at 2:00 pace, then slowed to 2:05 for 2′, then 2:10, then 2:15 for the last 2′.  I really like these cooldowns.  They go by fast and I feel so much better if I do them instead of just walking away after the main set.

Tomorrow:  3 x 2′ / 3′ rest – hopefully on the water.

Forecast for the weekend is now very confused.  Half the forecasters think we are going to be hit with Hurricane Joaquin.  The other half are scratching their beards thoughtfully and saying “hmmm”.

Tuesday PM: 30r18


  1. 30r18
  2. first 5′ at 165W, 5′ @ 170W, 5′ @ 175, 15′ @ 180W

Did not go to plan.  Very heavy legs from the morning session.  HR rose precipitiously as soon as I went to 175W.  Retreated back to 170W for the last 15 minutes.  Despite the very low power and HR right at 70% HRR, lactate reading at the end was 2.8mmol/l

Still no air movement and very humid in the gym.  I sweated up a storm, but I think the main issue was just fatigue from the morning.  So, an even slower start and a lower end power.

Screen Shot 2015-09-29 at 6.05.13 PM

30:00.0, 18 spm, 7085m, 170.7W

Tomorrow morning:  4 x 500m at race pace.

Tuesday AM: 4 x 1500 / 5′ rest

Foggy and calm.  A light 2-5 mph wind from the SSW, which was a bit of a head wind heading up river.  It’s getting darker and darker every morning.  I’ve started using my lights to try to reduce the odds that the Brandeis crew will run me over.


  1. 5×1500/5′ rest
  2. pace target: <2:10
  3. rate target: 28

The purpose of this workout is to push hard.  As hard or harder than I would push in the race.  Try to work on stroke efficiency at race rate and get used to the feeling of rowing above my LT for extended periods.  It worked.

This weekend, I was originally going to row in Textile River Regatta on Sunday, but they cancelled the masters events in favor of running them as part of the US Rowing Master National Head Race at the same venue on Saturday.  So, I have one less day than I thought in the plan.  I used this as an excuse to cut out one of the 5 intervals.  Actually, 4 was plenty enough this morning and I was toast by the time I started the fourth.

Screen Shot 2015-09-29 at 10.01.42 AM Screen Shot 2015-09-29 at 10.01.14 AM


06000_|_25:55_|_2:09.6_|_714___|_27.6_|_08.4_|_170___|_Main set
01500_|_09:38_|_3:12.7_|_174___|_18.1_|_08.6_|_133___|_rest meters
01600_|_09:53_|_3:05.2_|_193___|_19.5_|_08.3_|_130___|_cool down

I hit my pace target in all the intervals except the last one.  In that one, I was pushing and pushing, but I had a lot of trouble getting the splits below 2:11.  I was even wondering if the speedcoach had fouled, but a check of the GPS data dispelled that notion.  The only other thing that might have slowed me down was that the SSW breeze was getting a little stronger, but I suspect that my legs were just toasted.

Looking at the rate chart you can see how the rate goes up in the turn.  It’s about 1000m into the rep for #1 and #3 and 500m into the rep in #2 and #4.  There were some real life disruptions in the reps.

In rep #1, when I went through the S-turn I came upon 2 pairs, a 4+ and a laucnh coming the other way.  I had to do some steering to avoid them.  This impacted rate and effort more that speed.

In rep #2, right near the end, I managed to cut too close to an area of weeds that protrudes into the travel channel and that screwed up a few strokes.

Rep #3 and #4 were pretty clean, but I was getting really tired.  In rep #3, I decided that 4 was enough.  Based on how my legs feel now, I think it was a good decision.

I haven’t done that many minutes in the AN zone for a while.  Ouch.

This afternoon, I think I will do a nice slow recovery 30r18 to try to get loose.

Tomorrow:  The taper starts and plan calls for 4×500 at race pace.  I may end up doing that as 4 x 2′ on the erg because the weather is going to be terrible.

Speaking of the weather.  This weekend the forecast is for the fringes of Tropical Storm Joaquin to be over New England with rain and 20mph winds from the Northeast.  That’s basically a pure headwind for the head races in Lowell.  Great.

Monday PM: 30r18

Today I started adding a second “easy” session on days when I have time.  The intent of these is to keep it very tame and just add some endurance meters.

I targeted 180W, which today was a bit too high.

30:00.0, 7220m, 18 spm, 180.7W, 2.1 mmol/l

Screen Shot 2015-09-28 at 5.45.27 PM

You can see that there was a linear rise in HR through the session and the end lactate was 2.1mmol/l, which is higher than what I would like to see.  In these sessions, I would be happier to see something around 1.5.

So, why was 180 no problem over the weekend but not today.

  • Over the weekend, it was not a second session in the same day
  • The temperature was lower on Saturday (65 vs 72)
  • I had good airflow on Saturday, not today
  • I was wearing a shirt today, not on Saturday
  • I started at 173W for the first 20 minutes on Saturday, my avg for the first 10 minutes was probably 184W.

Next time I do a 30r18.

  • Use a fan
  • Start at 165W for the first 5 minutes, then 170W for 5, then 175 for 5, then 180W for the last 15.

We’ll see what that yields.

Monday: Steady State Rate Ladders

Lovely morning.  light mist on the water.  Low 50s.  No wind.  While I rowed, I spotted a bald eagle.  I saw him last week sitting on a branch.  This morning I saw him flying over the river.  Very impressive.


  1. 4 x (1000m @ 16, 1000m @ 18, 750m @ 20) / 1′ rest
  2. No pace target, but I get sad when I go slower than 2:30
  3. HR Cap:  Hard cap at 150

Screen Shot 2015-09-28 at 4.22.58 PM Screen Shot 2015-09-28 at 4.22.47 PM




00460_|_04:09_|_4:30.4_|_054___|_13.0_|_08.5_|_122___|_rest meters
02480_|_13:55_|_2:48.3_|_243___|_17.5_|_10.2_|_130___|_cool down


Mission accomplished. I was having fun trying to see how fast I could get the splits at r20 while keeping my HR at 150.   A good exercise in efficiency.  And I think the r16 parts could be potentially be counted as “strength endurance”.  The main thing that I am happy about is just respecting the HR cap.

Tomorrow:  last hard session before this Saturday’s race.

5×1500 / 5′ rest (Pace target: 2:10, Rate target 28)

From Polarized to Optimized. New Lecture from Prof. Steven Seiler

I am trying to get a handle on periodizing my training.  The book The Science of Winning by Jan Olbrecht makes a big point that an athlete will plateau after 8 to 10 weeks of consistent training and the training durations and intensities must be modulated to maintain progress.  This lecture takes a different view.  That periodization is highly variable from athlete to athlete and must be evaluated with a view toward individual progress.  Changes have to be made if the desired training effect is not seen.

He describes an experiment conducted with well trained cyclists.  The 69 cyclists were divided up into 3 groups.  Each group followed an 80/20 polarized training plan, but the higher intensity training was varied between the groups.  Here is the plot showing the average training hours per athlete per week in the study.

Screen Shot 2015-09-27 at 4.49.00 PM

All three groups had 4 week mesocycles with varying workloads and you can see the difference in how well rested the athletes felt in those week.

Each of these three groups were given different a training plan.

Screen Shot 2015-09-27 at 4.41.11 PM

Screen Shot 2015-09-27 at 4.41.47 PM

Pretty neat experiment, huh?  In the traditional group, the intensity build in each mesocycle.

Screen Shot 2015-09-27 at 4.42.37 PM

In the hybrid group, each mesocycle had a mix of each type of training.  This is very much like the Pete Plan or Wolverine plan.

Screen Shot 2015-09-27 at 4.57.25 PM

In the Reverse group, it all started with hell week with 3 high intensity sessions, then moved to intermediate and longer intervals.

Screen Shot 2015-09-27 at 4.42.56 PM

The results were interesting.  In the traditional group 60% of the athletes made significant gains in VO2max power.  The other groups significantly lower part of the group made big gains.

Screen Shot 2015-09-27 at 4.38.48 PM

The main point that Seiler made though, was that significant portions of each group did not make progress with the plan that they were on.

Screen Shot 2015-09-27 at 4.39.44 PM

As a scientist, the reaction is “Huh?”.  As a coach, the reaction needs to be “Change the plan!”.

For me, the big take away is that the lowest level of success was with the hybrid plan and that is basically what I have been using for the past 4 years with very little variation.  I think I will start to plan out training loads and intensities following the “Traditional model” for my winter training plan and track progress.  Of course all of this is in the context that 80% of the training will be low intensity steady state, but the type and amount of high intensity work will change by mesocycle.  The other take away is to monitor progress and make changes when things are not progressing as I expect.

Sunday: Hard 5.8km on Quinsigamond

We got tho the lake this morning and the fog was so thick that you could not see the opposite shore 500m away.  We don’t launch under those conditions.  A pity too because there was no wind and the water was oily smooth.  We waited about 30 minutes and it started to clear.  There was still very little wind, and it was quite cool, maybe around 40F.  The water was fabulous!  The featured image is at 8:30, right when I was finishing my main piece.

The plan for today was another head race simulation.  My last before the racing starts next weekend up in Lowell.


  1. 5.5km hard
  2. rate: r28
  3. pace: better than 2:12.7 (my previous best pace)
  4. As always work on good reach at the catch, smooth drive and early finish.

Screen Shot 2015-09-27 at 12.00.43 PM Screen Shot 2015-09-27 at 12.00.26 PM


05800_|_25:33_|_2:12.2_|_674___|_26.4_|_08.6_|_168___|_Main set
02780_|_15:00_|_2:41.9_|_301___|_20.1_|_09.2_|_138___|_rest meters

In the warmup to the south end of the lake, I tried to keep the intensity low.  I was rowing with another guy in a single and we basically matched pace.  As I got closer to the end, I cranked up to target pace and just got loose and ready for the piece.  I was pressed for time after our fog delay, so I took a minimal rest, drank a little water and set off on the main piece.

Less than 500m into the piece, I was hit by a massive wake from a waterskiing boat.  It stopped me dead in the water for a couple of strokes.  But, I got back in the groove and was pleased to see that I could hold under a 2:10 without going crazy.  It felt like a nice pressure. About 400m later, I was hit with another wake.  This one was smaller and I could keep rowing through it, but at half slide and with blades on the water.

Over the next 1500m, I started to feel the effects of my fast start, and the splits started to climb into the 2:10 to 2:15 range.  I just focused on mechanics. Reach far and finish clean.  Reach far and finish clean.  This got me to the narrows where I was waked one more time.  Again not so bad, but it cost me a few strokes at full pressure.

From there to the bridge was pretty painful.  I was hurting and just trying to keep it together.  There was a stretch where I was struggling with a cross chop from the wakes bouncing off the shore lines and coming back in unpredictable ways.  At steady state pressure these would have been no big deal, but I was tired enough that they really made it hard to stay in a smooth rhythm.  I was glad to get under the bridge and know that I had about 2K left.

I lifted the rate after the bridge.  I wasn’t hitting the target rate in the south end of the lake, but now I was.  I was also desperately counting strokes, trying to make sure that I didn’t get ahead of myself and trying to stay in the moment, just focusing on mechanics and technique.  I hit all the milestones at the right stroke counts and I knew that I would finish up right at about 700 strokes for the whole piece.  I started a final push with about 400m to go and finished with a 2:00 split on  the speedcoach.

I was gassed.  I panted for a half a minute then paddled up to the top of the lake.  I had a drink, took my feet out and then paddled back toward our dock.  I did about 1000m of steady rowing, then 500m of slow roll ups, then 500m of square blades and that was about it.

Even with the 3 wakings, I managed to beat my previous best pace by half a second (2:12.2 vs 2:12.7).  Excluding the one big wake, the pace was 2:10.8.  Even better, the average HR for this piece was 168 versus 176 for the piece where I did 2:12.7.  I’m happy with that and I think I’ll have a beer.

Tomorrow: Steady State.  Training plan calls for rate ladders.  I plan to do them

1000 @ 16, 1000 @ 18, rest of the distance @ 20

I will also row with a HR cap at 150.

What is the right way to cool down at the end of a hard session. Two articles worth reading

Blood lactate clearance during active recovery after an intense running bout depends on the intensity of the active recovery

Blood lactate removal during recovery at various intensities below the individual anaerobic threshold in triathletes.

The first article compares the lactate clearance rate for different intensity of cool downs. The experiment was a 10 minute warm up, then a 5 minute test at 90% of VO2Max, then straight into one of the cool down scenarios ranging from passive to 100% of LT power for 32 minutes with lactate tests performed during the cool down.

Here is the key graph.

Screen Shot 2015-09-27 at 11.28.12 AM

It shows that a cooldown at 60% or greater of LT power clears lactate significantly faster than passive or 40% of LT power.  LT power is about the power that can be sustained for a 30 minute time trial.  For me on the erg, right now, LT is probably around 250W, so a cooldown power greater than 0.6*250 = 150W (2:12.6 pace).

The second paper is based on triathletes.  The protocol here was very similar.  A 3 minute warmup, followed by a 6 minute test at about 90% VO2Max, then straight into the different cool down scenarios.  This paper defines the cool down intensity in terms of above, at or below the IVT (Individual Ventilatory Threshold), basically an intensity where your breathing gets very regular and deep.  This was all a bit too mumbo-jumbo-ish for me, but luckily they included a handy translation table to get from their weird units to % of VO2max.

Screen Shot 2015-09-27 at 11.40.23 AM

The findings were that the lower intensity IVT(-50%delT) provided optimal lactate clearance.

Screen Shot 2015-09-27 at 11.43.23 AM

So, if you use 2K power as a rough equivalent to VO2Max power, then you can come up with “real” numbers to use for comparison.  My current 2K is probably around a 6:50, which is 1:42.5 pace and 325W.  So, these intensities would be:

  • 67% * 325 = 218
  • 59% * 325 = 192
  • 51% * 325 = 166

So, this paper says 166W, which is a 2:08.2 pace

So put it together, these two papers say that I should go faster than 2:12.6 and no faster than 2:08.2.  I think 2:10 is probably a good pace for my cool downs based on my current fitness level.

Saturday: 4×20’/1′ rest with lactates

I got home from California around 6pm, and then my wife and I headed straight out to meet my sons for dinner in Cambridge.  We were home early though, apparently they had an party to go to.  The life of a 22 year old can be so challenging at times.

I rescheduled my hard row from this morning to Sunday so I could accept delivery of a new couch at home this morning.  Instead, I did an easy 80′ endurance session.  Another edition in the lactate experiment series.

The session was done mid-afternoon.  The temperature was lovely, mid 60s and I had a fan running.  It was nicely cool.

Today the plan was:

  1. 4 x 20′ / 1′ rest
  2. rate: 18
  3. pace: 176W
  4. lactate tests at the end of each 20′ interval

Screen Shot 2015-09-26 at 5.48.31 PM Screen Shot 2015-09-26 at 5.48.15 PM

Workout Summary – Sep 26, 2015
–_|_19217_|_80:00.0_|_02:04.9_|_179.7_|_17.8_|_129.9_|_ 61.0% _|_13.5_|_10.1
Workout Details

01_|_04773_|_20:00.0_|_02:05.7_|_176.2_|_17.8_|_127.7_|_ 59.3% _|_13.4_|_09.9_|_1.2
02_|_04786_|_20:00.0_|_02:05.4_|_177.7_|_17.7_|_131.3_|_ 61.9% _|_13.5_|_10.0_|_1.2
03_|_04812_|_20:00.0_|_02:04.7_|_180.5_|_17.8_|_131.0_|_ 61.7% _|_13.5_|_10.1_|_1.4
04_|_04846_|_20:00.0_|_02:03.8_|_184.4_|_17.8_|_129.9_|_ 60.9% _|_13.6_|_10.4_|_1.6

It was insanely easy.  My HR rose up a little faster in the first 20 minutes than last time, but stopped rising when it hit about 130.  After 20 minutes I did my first lactate test.  1.2mmol/l…That’s nicely low.

I decided to nudge the power up by 2 watts and aimed at 178.  It still felt like coasting.  My HR drifted around between 128 and 136.  It seemed I could make it rise a bit by slowing down the rate to 17, and make it drop back down by picking it back up to 18.  At the end of this 20 minutes my lactates were still 1.2mmol/l…Cool.

So, I decided to keep nudging up the power.  The next 20 minutes I did at 180W.  This felt like a little bit more work, but my HR was still locked in the 130-135 range with no discernible drift.  Lactates at the end of this one were 1.4mmol/l… Interesting, so adding a bit more power was enough to start nudging it up.

For the last 20 minutes, I added another 4 watts to see what happened.  In terms of HR, nothing happened.  I stayed right in the 130-135 range again with zero drift.  But the lactates noticed.  The test at the end were 1.6mmol/l…Still well below the threshold of 2.0, but again showing the effect of slightly higher power.

Here is this test compared to the others

4 lac table

4 lactates

So, what conclusions can I come to from this data.

  1.  I think that easing off on the steady state power for all my OTW and erg endurance training for the past couple weeks is already starting to pay off in terms of improved watts @ lactate performance.
  2. Cool weather helps a lot.
  3. Boris’s theory about older athletes needing more time to get their metabolic machinery going is making more sense to me.  I think today’s results would have been very different if I had just started at 184W.  By starting at a lower power, my theory is that I limited the ultimate rise in HR and lactate later in the workout.  I think I will start doing the first 20 minutes as a power ramp, maybe start about 15 watts down from target and bump up 5W after each 5 minutes.

Tomorrow:  Hard 5k on Quinsig.  The weather is supposed to be beautiful. Clear, sunny, calm and a chilly 44F.  I’m very psyched!