I find that planning the taper period can be one of the most difficult aspects of coaching to get right, as it can be highly individual and a number of factors need to be taken into consideration. What works for one person may not necessarily work for another. The length and type of taper will depend on factors such as the level of importance of the race, the duration and/or distance of the race, previous chronic training load peak (fitness level) and the age of the athlete.

Peaking at the right time and coming into form on race day is dependent on getting the best balance of fitness and freshness. As you train harder your fitness increases but so too do your fatigue levels. Then, when you rest, fatigue levels drop but unfortunately fitness does too. Luckily, fatigue drops at a faster rate than fitness. The plan on race day is to have the highest fitness level possible with as little fatigue as possible. Easier said than done.

Coming into form at the right time has been made far easier with use of power meters and supporting software programs such as TrainingPeaks. Such software will calculate stress scores for each workout, using complicated mathematical formula, and then plot a graph to help the athlete visualise the training loads and levels of fatigue. Trainingpeaks refers to this graph as the Performance Management Chart. It allow coaches to be a lot more scientific and accurate in setting out training programs and in particular assists in planning to achieve peak form at the right time. Below I have given an example of an athlete who has steadily increased fitness or chronic training load (blue line), over a period of 3 months. This athlete has completed a 1-week taper, as can be seen at the end of this graph. When training is backed off, the blue line (fitness) drops slightly but the yellow bars rise, indicating that the athlete has freshened up. Despite a small drop in chronic training load, fitness was still at a high level and with freshened legs, this athlete performed very well on race day.

If you are not using a power meter, the Taper phase can be a little more difficult to get right. Here are a few of the main considerations in devising your taper plan:

- The fitter you are and the longer you have been training and building fitness, the longer your taper can be. If you have been building fitness steadily for a few months or more it will take longer for fitness levels to drop. This is the beauty of building a base in the off-season; you will be able to hold form for a longer period of time. If, however, you only started your training 2 months prior to racing, your fitness levels will drop quickly so you need to be wary of starting your taper too soon and losing too much fitness.

- A longer race will require a longer taper period. This is particularly the case for ultra-marathons, 24hr events or stage races.  As the race progresses your levels of fatigue are increasing and therefore it is important to start the event with super-fresh legs. A good example of this is in the long road Tours. The GC riders in events such as the Tour De France, will intentionally start the Tour with super fresh legs so that they will be at an ideal training stress balance (relative level of fatigue), once they hit the mountains which is where they will actually hit their peak. Fatigue levels in shorter events such as XCO distance, won’t rise quite so much so the athlete can afford to start the event with a little more fatigue and higher levels of fitness.

- As we age, recovery takes a little longer. Physical changes to the body such as lowering levels of testosterone, weakened bones, reduced muscle mass and reduced enzyme activity, all contribute to increased likelihood of injury or over-training if adequate recovery is not included. It is therefore important for master’s riders to freshen up that little bit more and reduce their training load more than a younger athlete would in the lead up to a big event. 

Once you have determined your current level of fitness, the type of race you are tapering for and taken into consideration your age, it is time to sit down and devise your Taper plan. There are a few general rules to follow, that have proven to work for most athletes.

The majority of people will race best when they have had 4-6 days of recovery approx. 2 weeks out from racing. This is followed by a short build period in the week leading into the race, where some small “hit-out” sessions are completed. Two days out from the race is a good day to have completely off or just a short recovery-based session. Then the day before racing, complete a short session with some short hard efforts of race intensity with complete recovery in between each. 3 x 2-3min hard efforts with 5-6min easy in between each, works well for most people. This session is designed to “blow the cobwebs out” for the next day’s race. The short intense intervals will be enough to get the heart and lungs working without being too taxing on the legs.

The primary aim in the Taper phase of training should be on recovery and just doing small amounts of intensity to keep the body from going sluggish but not enough to produce too much fatigue. There are of course many other factors leading into a race that can alter the way we feel on race day, such as diet, work/family stresses, travel etc. Sometimes an athlete can go through the perfect taper and on paper they should be in their best form; however there are so many other variables that can come into play in the week leading in that affect performance. Practice a few different taper methods for some of your less important / ‘training races’ throughout the year and keep good record on how you felt on race day. By doing this, you will be able to work out the type of the taper that suits you best so that you start your goal race with best possible form! 

Words: Jenni King @pedallab Photos: Robert Conroy