We are now heading into March, and this being the case, Newcastle is set to increase its sporting pursuits in the coming weeks, The Sparke Helmore Triathlon, National Rugby League and National Soccer League. In the lead up to competition, it is important that athletes cater their training to maximise their performance. One feature of training that is often neglected, when preparing for competition, is what is called 'The Taper'. The taper is a progressive, nonlinear reduction of the training load during a variable amount of time that is intended to reduce physiological and psychological stress of daily training and optimise competitive performance. From this perspective, the taper is of paramount importance to the outcome of an event. However, there is no training phase during which coaches are more insecure about the most suitable training strategies for each individual athlete, as they have most often relied on an almost exclusive trial and error approach. It has only been in recent times that sports scientists have increased their understanding of the relationship between the reduction of training load before a competition and the associated performance changes. The are many aspects of managing the taper lead including intensity, volume, frequency, pattern and duration.
1. Intensity: In a recent study on swimmers, cyclists and runners, it was shown that if intensity was reduced prior to competition performance was compromised. Thes result of the study, therefore, suggested that the training load of athletes should not be reduced at the expense of training intensity during a taper.
2. Volume: With regard to training volume, all studies have shown a marked imporvement in performance when volume is reduced. For instance, scientific studies have reported that when training volume is decreased by more than two thirds, over a period of 15 weeks, cyclists maintained their physiological and endurance performance adaptations acquired during the season. This also reinforces the scientific research on middle distance runners who have improved physioloigcal and performance outcomes with low-volume tapers compared to moderate-volume tapers.
3. Frequency: At this point in time, reducing frequency (reducing the number of training sessions), has not been shown to improve performance. Although, frequency, as an isolated variable has not been shown to improve performance, a reduction in training volume is strongly linked to this feature.
4. Patterns: There exists several patterns of taper e.g. exponential taper with a slow or fast decay, or progressive taper. the most effective is the progressive taper, where training volume is reduced over a period of time (see duration). Scientific studies on triathletes have shown that progessive tapers have a significant effect on performance compared to an exponential taper with fast decay (e.g. sudden reduction in training volume).
5. Duration: Scientific studies show that an 8 to 14 day taper seems to represent the boarderline between the positive influence of fatigue disappearance and the negative influence of detraining on performance. Performance improvements can be expected from 1, 3, and 4 week tapers.
The taper is a key element of the physical preparation of athletes in the weeks before a competition. This week I have discussed aspects related to training load, however, enhancing recovery is also an important component of a taper. Next week I will be discussing, how to enhance recovery during a taper, via nutrition, hydration, and massage. In addition to enhancing recovery I will discuss the factors that can impede on preparation during a taper i.e. climate.
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