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:

Plan:

  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

4x2

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”.