Skip to Content

The Science of Tapering: Improve Your Performance Up to 8%

optimize your taper

In my running and triathlon career during and after college the taper was my absolute favorite part of competing. It was like a reward for all the hard work I had done. And I now know that the tapering element is often a coach’s most stressful period in planning and prepping their athlete to dial in physically and mentally. 

Sometimes as a coach, I wonder if we have prepared my athletes as effectively as we could have. Did we load the athlete with the right amount of training-specific stress? Is the taper too short or too long? 

In this brief article, I touch on what the taper is, and how athletes feel during the taper. I will also discuss the benefits of tapering, the three different types of tapers, and which one is the best. 

What is Tapering? 

Tapering is a well-planned period of reduced training workload. We reduce one or more of the following variables: duration, frequency, and intensity. The taper is the time for your body to absorb all the hard training you’ve done leading up to this point. This allows you to be fresh and fit on race day so you can bring the most speed, endurance, or some combination of both. The purpose of the taper is to have you optimally ready for race day. 

The taper is the final 1-3 week preparation period before a major race. Some athletes new to racing may think that tapering is simply taking a week off from training but that is definitely not the case. Some athletes with increased idle time can actually become restless and may allow self-doubt to creep in thinking they are losing fitness. However, there are physiological benefits to tapering. If you want to execute your best possible race then you have to taper. While your body is recovering from the built-up training stresses you are actually getting stronger. 

How Will I Feel? 

triathlon run taper

At the beginning of the taper, you may feel pretty good with the reduced training volume. But by the middle, you may feel lethargic and irritable as your body is in recovery mode and not being asked to do as much. You may even feel like you are losing your fitness level and that you should train more. This is normal. 

By the third and final period of the taper, you will feel fresh and ready to compete. You may even feel like you want to blow the doors off some of the taper sessions but be patient as your time to do just that will come on race day. And while the natural self-doubt and restlessness set in this is the ideal time to work on visualization and mindset training. 

Additionally, with the extra time on your hands provided by the reduced workload of tapering, you may feel inclined to carbohydrate load and eat more. While for your race, carb loading may provide a lot of value, it’s the percent that carbs make up of your total nutrition, you should still match caloric intake with your reduced training load. In other words, with the reduced training volume you will need fewer calories, but the percent of carb intake that increases. 

Benefits of Tapering 

The primary benefit of tapering is that it increases the potential for peak performance to occur. Your expected performance improvement from tapering is anywhere from 0.5% up to 8.9%. This number can obviously vary widely with individual training, mindset, and external factors like weather. 

At the end of the taper, the athlete should be balanced between feeling fresh and being fit. Elite athletes may only improve a fraction up to 2% but when you are highly trained competing against other elites that fraction can still be impactful and can be the difference between winning, making the podium, or not. 

The further benefits of tapering are based on what is going on physiologically. In a study comparing a rest-only taper, a low-intensity taper, and a high-intensity low volume taper determined that a high-intensity low volume taper had the best results. 

The high-intensity low volume taper improved fatigue resistance by 22% with an increase in citrate synthase, a vital contributor to aerobic energy production. Muscle glycogen also increased, and the total blood volume increased substantially. Strength also increased with all three of the tapers. Fatigue resistance increased significantly compared to the others. All three even decreased in the rest only taper. Clearly, taking more sessions off, like many beginner to intermediate athletes often do, is not the solution you are looking for. 

Further in the book “Scientific Training for Endurance Athletes”, Phillip Skiba quoted several intriguing studies including a study by Trappe and colleagues. This study followed swimmers on a 21-day taper protocol that reduced volume but increased intensity and found improvements of 13% in peak power and 4% in race times. What these researchers discovered when they looked at individual muscle cells was that the peak force of type II A fibers (the middle ground of fast and slow twitch fibers) improved by 30%. In addition to peak force, the ability to contract faster went up by 32% in type I slow twitch fibers and a whopping 67% in type II A fibers. 

Types of Tapers 

triathlon swim race taper

There are several tapers that coaches use and we can split them into two groups: progressive and non-progressive tapers. A non-progressive taper is just one reduction in training load, while a progressive taper has several reductions. Essentially the goal of the taper is to reduce the training stress so the athlete is fresh and sharp for race day. 

  • A step taper is the only non-progressive taper. The step taper is a sudden reduction in training load from 20-50%, 2-3 weeks out from your goal race. This reduction is held constant each week of the taper. This taper is known to be the least effective. 
  • A linear taper is a reduction in load by 20% starting approximately the first week and then another 20% for the following week. 
  • An exponential taper, also called a progressive taper, is the most effective and it’s a gradual reduction throughout one’s taper. 

When it comes to the exponential taper, athletes who have been putting in a high load may need more of a taper than an athlete who is less fit with a relatively lighter load. Over a short taper like 4-8 days a fast decay exponential taper is better than a slow decay exponential taper. But if you have room for a longer taper then a slower decay is best. 

What’s the Best Way to Taper?

science of tapering

The most effective taper is the exponential taper. Based on a meta-analysis study of over 400 athletes of swimmers, cyclists, and runners, a 14-day taper that exponentially reduces the training volume from 41-60% while maintaining frequency and intensity is optimal. 

Other meta-analysis studies have found that the optimal taper depends on the length of the event between 8-14 days. Typically the shorter the race the shorter the taper you may need. The training load gets progressively less while you shed fatigue and freshen up the mind and body for competition. 

You may have heard that swimmers need to swim frequently to maintain the feel of the water. There is certainly something to be said about that as maintaining the frequency of training sessions improves the athlete’s motor sensations, which lead to a high level of performance. In addition to increasing the intensity of the training sessions while reducing the volume, you also want to maintain the frequency. So, if you’re used to training six days a week, you want to keep training six days a week.

In a recent athlete case study, as we were writing the bulk of this article, elite athlete Abby Rodseth did a two-week exponential taper that resulted in a 3% improvement in her half marathon PR at the Missoula Half Marathon. This resulted in her breaking 80 minutes in the half for the first time with a 1:18:46. This was a short training block leading into the half and she also had a two-week block after Boston. When she tapered for Boston, she improved her marathon time by over 9.4%, from 2:55 to 2:46 As an elite athlete training to qualify for the marathon Olympic trials she clearly has even more room to improve 

Conclusion 

The taper is an imperative part of the annual training plan that allows for peak performance. A fast decay exponential taper may be best for most people’s training. During the taper, you want to increase intensity, increase the rest intervals, reduce volume, maintain your frequency, and increase your sleep. If you’re an athlete that is coming into the race with limited training then you may not need much of a taper at all. However, if you are highly trained then you do need a good taper. You may find you start feeling very fresh and start opening up your paces in your training more but I encourage you to stick to the plan and prove yourself on race day with a faster race.

William Ritter Triathlon Coach
William Ritter
Endurance Coach at Fly Tri Racing | Website

William Ritter, from Tyler Texas, enjoys working with athletes that are lookingto improve their performance in triathlon or running. He specializes in coaching triathletes and runners of all abilities. Ritter’s coaching is extensive and focused on the individual athlete, blending the art and science of coaching. Ritter is the Head Coach at Fly Tri Racing with over 13 years of coaching experience and 27 years of competitive experience. Coach Ritter is a USA Triathlon Level II Short & Long Course Coach, USA Triathlon Level 1 Youth & Junior Coach, USA Track & Field Level II Endurance & Youth Coach and USATF Cross Country Specialist. Including a TrainingPeaks Level 2 and Power Certified Coach, Ironman U, Tri Sutto Coaching Certified, USA Triathlon, Cycling Coach.