How to taper for a race, and why it works


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- Alex Hutchinson (@sweatscience)


This week’s Jockology column looks at research into tapering: how to reduce your training before an important competition so that you’re well-rested but don’t lose any fitness. It tackles how long you should taper for (two weeks seems to work well); how you should adjust training volume (reduce by 40 to 60 percent), intensity (don’t change) and frequency (don’t change); and the difference between step, linear and exponential tapers.

The most interesting finding for me came from a new study by Scott Trappe and his colleagues at Ball State’s Human Performance Laboratory, suggesting that tapering isn’t just about rest — it actually helps your muscles grow:

He and his colleagues took a series of muscle biopsies from university cross-country runners preparing for a championship race. Surprisingly, they found that the individual muscle fibres responsible for explosive power in the legs actually got bigger and contracted more powerfully after the training reduction.

“On a molecular level, the wheels are so greased that the engines proceed at a high rate even after you reduce your training,” explains Dr. Trappe. This creates a window of opportunity during which the delicate balance between muscle synthesis and breakdown shifts to favour muscle growth.

In contrast, the researchers found no change in measures of cardiovascular endurance such as VO2max. This suggests that it’s the muscle adaptation that provides the performance boost of tapering – and just as importantly, that a brief period of less training doesn’t compromise endurance. The result: The runners raced 6 per cent faster over 8 kilometres than they had just three weeks earlier. [read the rest of the column]