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Here’s what’s involved in “peaking” or strategically unloading your athletes without detraining them.

Tapering is a method of strategically unloading athletes in order to achieve peak levels of preparedness for major competitions. It’s one of those things we hear about more frequently than we see — and when we do see it, it’s rarely done consistently. For every coach who understands the whys and hows of tapering, unfortunately there seem to be two more who either do it incorrectly or don’t believe in doing it at all.

It’s important to realize that the objective of tapering is to unmask the potential an athlete has developed through long-term training rather than to push for further adaptation at the 11th hour. This begins with an understanding of the fitness-fatigue relationship (Bannister 1991; Zatsiorsky & Kraemer 2006). Tapering tactics should exploit the same phenomena as summated and sequenced training strategies (Plisk & Stone 2003; Stone, Stone & Sands 2007). They are intended to maximize athletes’ long-term preparation by improving and stabilizing fitness such that it can be maintained for several weeks at a time with reduced volume-loads.

Guidelines

Certain tapering tactics tend to work better than others. According to the available evidence (Bosquet et al. 2007; Mujika & Padilla 2003; Thibault 2007), here’s how to unload before a major competition without detraining significantly:

Maintain intensity and quality at high levels. Intensity is a key parameter for maintaining training-induced adaptations and should not be reduced when tapering.

Reduce overall volume, mainly by cutting the amount of work allocated to nonspecific tasks and low-intensity activities. Volume can be successfully curtailed as much as 40-60% depending on previous stresses and/or the subsequent competition schedule. Volume can be adjusted by decreasing session duration as well as frequency. The first strategy is preferred; whereas the second does not improve performance significantly.

Progressive, ramp-like decreases in volume seem to work better than sharp, step-like reductions.

Maintain frequency at relatively high levels (>80% of normal), especially for advanced/elite athletes. Frequency can be reduced to 30-50% in order to achieve larger reductions in volume, to unload before the final competition of a season (when subsequent detraining won’t be problematic), or when working with less qualified or novice athletes.

An 8-14 day taper, during which training volume is exponentially reduced 40-60%, seems to be an ideal duration for optimizing performance. Shorter durations (less than 1 week) may be appropriate when the preceding mesocycle or block involves a progressive reduction in volume-load to low/moderate levels. Longer durations (up to 1 month) may be needed if prior volume-loads were high, or progressively increased.

Overreaching prior to tapering can enhance performance. Taper duration and volume-load reduction should be adjusted to manage the resulting cumulative fatigue.

This adds up to training sessions that are shorter than usual, conducted at or near the usual frequency, with fewer secondary/tertiary activities, and more attention to quality of effort on primary tasks as well as recovery between efforts.

Keep in mind that many coaches either won’t get this or won’t like it. Likewise, overachiever athletes who believe that more is always better often struggle with this. So in addition to having a well-planned tapering strategy, it’s advisable to proactively educate everyone it will involve well before implementing it. Changing people’s belief systems is hard enough without trying to do it right before the big event.

Although there’s more to athletic performance than adaptation of muscle tissue, the available evidence on myosin heavy chain (MHC) responses to loading/unloading supports tapering. A fast-to-slow conversion of MHC phenotypes tends to occur when skeletal muscle is overloaded either chronically or intermittently; whereas MHC shifts from slow to fast when muscle is unloaded or its weight-bearing activity is reduced (Baldwin & Haddad 2001, 2002; Talmadge 2000). Such protein isoform shifts are part of a constellation of specific changes that also include ATPase activity and sarcoplasmic reticulum — so MHC is an indicator of broad cellular adaptations.

In practice, the trick to peaking seems to be to maintain training frequency and intensity in order to minimize detraining or atrophy, while reducing volume in order to manage fatigue and achieve a slow-to-fast shift as well as an increase in glycogen stores.

Fitness-Fatigue Paradigm

The fitness-fatigue model is a foundational concept when designing training programs, and is especially important for tapering. According to this theory, an athlete’s preparedness is the sum of two after-effects of training: fitness (which is positive) and fatigue (which is negative). In contrast to “supercompensation” theory — which is based on the premise that there’s a cause-and-effect relationship between these factors — the fitness-fatigue model states that they have opposing effects. This has a simple but profound implication: Preparedness can be optimized with strategies that maximize the fitness responses to training stimuli while minimizing (read: managing) fatigue.


Fitness-Fatigue Model. Preparedness = fitness – fatigue. Source: Zatsiorsky V.M. & Kraemer W.J. Science & Practice of Strength Training (2nd Edition). Champaign IL: Human Kinetics, 2006; p. 13.

Since fatigue is a natural consequence of training stress, especially with high volume-loads — and adaptations are manifested during subsequent unloading periods — fatigue management tactics are integral to a sound program. These can be implemented at different levels:

Long-term (macrocycle) … tapering before major competitions; active rest/transition periods after competitive seasons Intermediate-term (mesocycle) … restitution microcycles after overreaching microcycles, concentrated blocks or stressful competitions Short-term (microcycle) … maintenance/restitution workloads or recovery days; daily training routines distributed into modules separated by recovery breaks; intra-session relief breaks or “rest pauses”

Putting It Together

At all times, task specificity and fatigue management should really be the driving forces behind speed/agility and strength/power training — in other words, whenever work quality and technique are at a premium. This is especially true when peaking for a major competition. Fatigue is a progressive process that begins at the onset of work and affects task execution well before failure occurs (Brooks, Fahey & Baldwin 2005; Fitts 1996; Gandevia 2001; Ross, Leveritt & Riek 2001; Taylor, Todd & Gandevia 2006). It’s a normal result of intense activity, but tends to interfere with skill acquisition and performance.

The objective of speed-endurance training differs from that of speed/agility or strength/power development: to enhance fatigue resistance and tolerance. For this reason, it involves tactics that purposefully stress the metabolic systems. While the volume-load of speed-endurance work can (and should) be reduced significantly when tapering, by nature it tends to be fatiguing. Striking a balance between tapering and deconditioning during a peaking phase presents a significant challenge for the practitioner. A rule of thumb is to use a procedure like tactical metabolic modeling to zero in on the “special endurance” demands of the event (Plisk & Gambetta 1997); and crop energy system work to the minimum level needed to ensure that athletes are still prepared for those demands, but not detrained or fatigued for the big game.

Resources

  • Baldwin K.M., Haddad F. Effects of different activity and inactivity paradigms on myosin heavy chain gene expression in striated muscle. J. Appl. Physiol. 90(1): 345-357, 2001.
  • Baldwin K.M., Haddad F. Skeletal muscle plasticity: cellular and molecular responses to altered physical activity paradigms. Am. J. Phys. Med. Rehabil. 81(11 Suppl): S40-51, 2002.
  • Bannister E.W. Modeling elite athletic performance. In: J.D. MacDougall, H.A. Wenger & H.J. Green (Editors), Physiological Testing of the High Performance Athlete. Champaign IL: Human Kinetics, 1991; pp. 403-424.

Bosquet L., Montpetit J., Arvisais D., Mujika I. Effects of tapering on performance: a meta-analysis. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc. 39(8): 1358-1365, 2007.

  • Brooks G.A., Fahey T.D. & Baldwin K.M. Exercise Physiology (4th Edition). New York NY: McGraw-Hill, 2005.

Fitts R.H. Cellular, molecular, and metabolic basis of muscle fatigue. In: Handbook of Physiology, Section 12: Exercise: Regulation & Integration of Multiple Systems, L.B. Rowell & J.T. Shepherd (Editors). New York NY: American Physiological Society/Oxford University Press, 1996; pp. 1151-1183.

  • Gandevia S.C. Spinal and supraspinal factors in human muscle fatigue. Physiol. Rev. 81(4): 1725-1789, 2001.
  • Mujika I., Padilla S. Scientific bases for precompetition tapering strategies. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc. 35(7): 1182-1187, 2003.
  • Plisk S.S., Gambetta V. Tactical metabolic training. Strength Cond. J. 19(2): 44-53, 1997.
  • Plisk S.S., Stone M.H. Periodization strategies. Strength Cond. J. 25(6): 19-37, 2003.
  • Ross A., Leveritt M., Riek S. Neural influences on sprint running: training adaptations and acute responses. Sports Med. 31(6): 409-425, 2001.
  • Stone M.H., Stone M. & Sands W.A. Principles & Practice of Resistance Training. Champaign IL: Human Kinetics, 2007.
  • Talmadge R.J. Myosin heavy chain isoform expression following reduced neuromuscular activity: potential regulatory mechanisms. Muscle Nerve 23(5): 661-679, 2000.
  • Taylor J.L., Todd G., Gandevia S.C. Evidence for a supraspinal contribution to human muscle fatigue. Clin. Exp. Pharmacol. Physiol. 33(4): 400-405, 2006.
  • Thibault G. Resting to win. Training Conditioning 17(4): 53-59, 2007.
  • Zatsiorsky V.M. & Kraemer W.J. Science & Practice of Strength Training (2nd Edition). Champaign IL: Human Kinetics, 2006.

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