New Rules for Taper and Peaking

By Sergei Beliaev, Ph.D., President of Super Sport Systems

Taper is the last magic bullet in a coach’s training arsenal. The ability to peak an athlete’s performance on the exact day of a specific event has long been the elusive pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. And although every coach acknowledges the value of a “good taper”, no two coaches (or sports scientists for that matter) can agree on exactly how a taper needs to be executed to produce the maximum effect.

Lending fuel to this heated debate, Dr. Iῇigo Mujika discusses what he considers to be the critical elements of taper in his recent and popular book, “Tapering and Peaking for Optimal Performance”. In general this book offers an interesting read, and covers many major elements that define traditional taper strategies and the effects they have on athletes. Although it does not cover them all, it provides a good place to start. Bear in mind this is not meant to be a critique of his work. We’re just using it as a point of reference.

Before we begin though it’s important to understand that Mujika’s study is based on the antiquated assumptions of “classic” periodization theory, where training loads, as a rule, are designed to peak right before the taper and the taper itself is viewed as a reduction of training loads with a goal to “reduce fatigue and improve general fitness”.

Without question the taper details and rules suggested in his book are valid, but again only within the confines of “conventional” season designs. They simply fall short of the mark with the kind of “contemporary” season design used by 3S. So depending on how your season is constructed, different taper strategies may be needed to maximize the outcome of your coaching efforts.

Taper can be defined as a drastic reduction in training volume just prior to the main target event with a goal to:

  • Reduce Overall Fatigue (caused by excessive, usually super-high training loads immediately preceding the taper period)
  • Boost or Stabilize Physiological Adaptation to previous strenuous training regimens, as a response to overload effect

Dr. Mujika also adds another goal… “Improved general fitness”, a rather ambiguous term. While we understand the reason “improved general fitness” is mentioned here, we may argue that “competitive readiness” is not the same as optimum fitness. That is defined by different abilities and qualities, and by definition these stages contradict each other. It would probably be more appropriate to address an athlete’s “freshness” and “responsiveness” when discussing taper recovery effect after grueling loads. But these effects usually go hand in hand with fatigue reduction, which is already mentioned as one of the main goals of taper. So, let us keep note of this point, but with some clarification of its nature in mind.

The following variables are commonly considered critical in the design of a taper strategy. In general these considerations are the same for both classic and contemporary season design.

  • 1. Duration of optimum taper phase
  • 2. Reduction of training volume (as % from peak loads achieved prior to taper)
  • 3. Intensity, amount, and frequency of training exercises during the taper
  • 4. Training frequency (number of weekly sessions during taper)
  • 5. Character of load reduction
  • 6. Gain that is expected (as % from previous best results/speed achieved in pre-taper period)

The results of Dr. Mujika’s research provide insights into all of these considerations, but that is where things start to get interesting. Proponents of “contemporary” season design, will instantly see vast differences between the results coaches got tapering under the “classical” plan of season design and what they have been able to accomplish with “contemporary” (3S) planning. With this in mind let us compare the suggestions provided by both approaches, and try to analyze the reasons particular elements are treated differently.

Optimum Taper Duration
There is not much agreement about the optimum duration of taper among coaches using classic training design. The research conducted by Mujika shows a wide range of 10 to 32 days with a huge disparity between the end range points (10 +- 6 and 32+-12). Commonly, coaches taper for 10-16 days, while 2 weeks seems to be the suggested “standard” (if there can be such a thing).

Something is definitely wrong here. That’s far too broad a range, with no real guiding principle behind it. Clearly more precision is needed here, so it is important to discuss other factors that will influence the amount of time a coach will spend in taper. To begin with, the duration and strategy of the prior training phase will obviously influence the way we should approach taper.

Assuming that the goal of the last training phase in classic periodization is to maximize the workload and its different components, the taper phase can then be viewed as relief time for removing accumulated fatigue and stabilizing adaptation. The duration of taper in this case most likely will depend on the level of fatigue of your athletes and their remaining adaption resources. Consequently, higher levels of exhaustion will require longer periods of relief in order to bring an athlete back to competitive form.

Unfortunately, classic periodization principles don’t provide a systematic way of measuring accumulated fatigue. Coaches and scientists rely mostly on various physiological tests, which measure the immediate state of different functions. The missing component in this picture is “progression expectancy points”, or ability to match actual behavior of different physiological functions with planned ones.

In other words, although the results of tests commonly used may indicate specific changes that are happening in your athletes and some possible corrective measures, in most cases there is no connection between prior strategy, rate of progression (adaptation reserves), and future strategy that can maximize performance when your athlete needs it most. In this situation taper serves more as a safety valve, or a time to “re-condition” an athlete for a particular event than as a way to enhance his performance further. It’s also obvious from Dr. Mujika’s study that there is no way to delineate this “normalization” process, leaving coaches to throw darts at what they hope will be the optimum time needed to accomplish their goals, basing this in each case on the knowledge of their athletes’ best times and “individual rates of recovery”.

In classic training design effective duration of taper depends on the following factors:

  • Character and depth of accumulated fatigue by the end of pre-taper training phase
  • Adaptation resources left by that period
  • Speed of individual recovery reaction to high load training stress
  • Character of recovery / taper strategy (volume and intensity combination)

But when using classic training design, none of these parameters can be measured or predicted … leaving a taper (from its duration point of view), kind of a mystery. This is not, however, the case with 3S where tools are provided to make these calculations with extreme accuracy and high probability (over 90% in most cases).

Training Volume Reduction

If our analysis of the transition characteristics between pre-taper phase and taper is correct, then one way to eliminate accumulated fatigue and allow faster recovery to competitive form would be to reduce the overall training load. And this is indeed a key element of traditional taper. The amount of reduction then depends upon the amount of stress accumulated in the pre-taper phase. According to Mujika’s findings, the most effective reduction of volume (as a percentage from the previous peak volume) is between 41 and 60%.

Another way to interpret those numbers is to suggest that a 40-60% reduction of training volume will be required to allow the adaptation mechanisms to normalize after systemic overload and continued adaptation (assuming that the “point of no return” is not reached). A longer taper period will of course then be required in severe overload cases.

The important consideration here, apart from the fact that this approach is not very efficient, is in the fact that once again we are managing not the adaptation progression itself (like “progressive season planning” methods), but rather trying to manage recovery from systemic fatigue – a variable we have no way of measuring. This “solution” then can readily explain the tendency to turn to doping (which can look very tempting) when speed and rate of recovery become the goal of a successful taper.

Relative Training Intensity of Exercises in Taper

A low volume – high intensity approach has been proven to be more effective as a taper strategy under the “classic” design scenario, which is hardly surprising. High load is associated with high economization of all functions. Economization itself serves as a great foundation for solving next training goals, like increasing anaerobic power and maximum speed, which is necessary to be successful in competitions.

Large training volumes are usually associated with building great aerobic capacity, which conflicts with the ability to train and improve anaerobic power (J. Olbrecht, 2000). So it is desirable to separate these processes in time. Taper then appears to be a good time to work on the anaerobic component of preparedness. However time is required to maximize anaerobic power and capacity (usually 3 weeks or more). That may explain why time in taper may fluctuate from 2 to 6 weeks, since additional time may be required to reduce overall fatigue before transitioning to high intensity, high power output training work. The absence or inadequate volume of high intensity component in taper does not allow to maximize anaerobic component of preparedness and therefore, reduces the opportunity to reach peak performance.

Maintained Training frequency (number of weekly sessions)

The hallmark of taper is its significant reduction of training volume. So maintaining the same number of training sessions (training frequency) of the pre-taper period is hardly possible. Typically, training frequency in taper is about 20% less than the previous period. Authors suggest that additional reduction of training frequency does not produce a greater positive effect.

Looking at taper from a “dynamic planning” perspective, we view the reduction of both training loads and frequency as a means of offering additional recovery time after high intensity sets. We believe that the process itself should be “fluid”, maintaining a natural and carefully programmed progression of separate training intensities. Rest also becomes an additional regulating factor of recovery from short-term fatigue during the taper period, and should be administered without hesitation when required. However, the demanding goals of training are still there, so we do not advocate for dramatic reduction of training frequency during taper when using contemporary (3S) training designs. In our observations faster recovery comes by reducing daily loads, which is sufficient to accomplish this in most cases.

Character of Load Reduction

This factor, like several others we’ve already discussed, can only be considered valid when using classic training designs. The character of load reduction (read “recovery strategy after severe overload”) is important, if reduction of overall fatigue and speed of recovery are accepted as the key criterion of taper success. Super Sport Systems’ methodology differs dramatically in this respect, since we connect the reduction of training volumes as part of a new training strategy for the final phase of pre-competition preparation. In that sense the difference lies in the fact that under the classic design, taper follows the overload phase, while under contemporary design the “accumulation phase” leads naturally and gradually to a taper, without overreaching adaptation potential at any point in the training season… all way up to the day of your most important event. That leads us to the main point of this discussion – the effectiveness of different taper strategies.

Expected Gain from Taper Under Different Planning Theories

In his book Dr. Mujika considers the average gain expected through taper to be between 0.5-6%, with a 3% being average over the best pre-taper time. Dr. Mujika states explicitly that a coach cannot expect magic from even the most effective taper strategy, a statement we agree with wholeheartedly.

There is a caveat in measuring improvement this way, however. The problem from our perspective lies in the points taken to calculate the gain achieved in taper. Under classic design, taper gain is measured as the difference in performance of the pre-taper and after-taper period. In essence that means that taper gain is dissociated from the best results achieved in the previous season, and it also does not account for progression rate and its character from the beginning of the current season to its pre-taper period.

That means that we have little if any information about the strategy and the character of physiological changes achieved prior to taper. In other words, training phases within one season in classic design are treated as discrete, where each phase (mezzo cycle, block, depending on classic periodization variation) is treated as a separate training event, with its own goals and tactics.

On the other hand, 3S training design is based on a progressive and comprehensive adaptation pattern where the change of maximum ability serves as its model. The rate of progression is treated as uninterrupted, and measured on a week to week basis with its goal being to achieve the previous season’s best performance time at the time when we plan for our “realization” phase. Under contemporary training design we measure taper gain as the gain achieved above the previous season’s fastest times, and do it in a progressive, incremental, and manageable manner in order to avoid exposing athletes to overloads whenever possible.

Taper gains under classic design strategy appear to be somewhat universal and do not apparently depend on sport, gender, age or sport proficiency. In addition there were no statistically reliable differences reported between beginners and elite level athletes. But that is definitely not the case with contemporary season and taper design.

The season to season gain according to our massive data (over 5000 participants per season, 20 seasons) in groups starting from beginners (age 10-14) all way to collegiate athletes varies from 4 to 10% per coach, with some athletes being able to improve their performance over 10% per season (about 8% of all athletes that were reported to us). Numbers apart, the fact here is that performance gain can be planned at the beginning of the season and not just in the last phase of preparation to a main event. Although that depends on various factors, individual recovery and speed of adaptation to specific training loads become determining factors. The logical outcome of this is that the contemporary approach we use is infinitely more flexible, and opens opportunities in managing the training process that were never available in the classic approach.

Conclusion

Times change. What we “know” as fact today, becomes fiction tomorrow. A few thousand years ago people KNEW that the earth floated on whales. Less than 500 years ago people KNEW that the earth was flat. Today most coaches believe that there is only ONE periodization theory and therefore all assumptions, modeling and management of their training process has to be attached to its principles.

Just consider for a moment that almost every key principle of classic periodization is based upon outdated or unsubstantiated theory, or has a different meaning or interpretation in today’s modern coaching world. Imagine now that the planning principles you know and use are not the most effective or even valid. Scary isn’t it? Like trying to sail a ship with pixie dust. That’s why we think it’s time for you to expand your horizons, and look well beyond the end of your nose.

History has proven time and again that it is impossible to stop technological progress, innovations, and dreams. But it’s so hard to get rid of our teddy bears… because they are so comfortable. The choice now is yours… comfort or progress!

PS: Please read “Taper Count Down” article discussing suggested taper protocol under “contemporary” (3S) season design.

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