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Cycling science: How do I taper to hit peak fitness?

Michael Donlevy
25 Jun 2018

There’s no point training hard right up to a big event if it leaves you too tired to perform. That’s where the art of the taper comes in

Summer means that we are fast approaching some of the biggest amatuer cycling events. This could be one of Europe's grand events such as the L'Etape du Tour and Marmotte or it could even be something more local like the RideLondon 100 or brand new Velo South. 

Whatever the challenge you have entered, you will no doubt be deep into your training regime as you attempt to set a new personal best or even just finish the event.

Usually us cyclists feel that we need to train more, not less, for such challanges but cutting down on training at the right moment can help you hit peak fitness .

In the words of Ric Stern of cyclecoach.com, ‘Tapering allows you to reduce your total workload prior to a race, so you can arrive at the start feeling mentally and physically refreshed.’

‘If you taper properly, you’ll produce the best performance you can for the amount of training you’ve put in,’ says British Cycling coach Will Newton.

‘If you don’t taper it’s such a pity – you’ve put in a huge effort for months but you’re going to underperform because you’re tired.’

‘Not tapering could – but won’t definitively – lead to burnout or undue fatigue,’ adds Stern.

‘Or it may not. That will depend on where you are in your training build-up and how you’re affected by your current training load.’

Look at it this way, though: training is about building fitness, which is an ongoing process.

The closer you get to your race, the more you’re training for fitness gains that won’t be felt until after that race has happened. Which is pointless.

‘It’s different for everyone,’ says Newton. ‘Some people need three weeks, while others need one day. Some people have three days off and their performance is shocking.

‘The key is to practise during training for your B or C races. Do this taper, did it work? No? Try a longer taper. Try a shorter taper. Experiment in races that don’t matter.’

Turning down the volume

So, how to taper? This depends on your fitness and your training regime, but the benefits are the same whether you’re an elite athlete or a novice.

Tapering can be controlled through four variables: volume of training, frequency, intensity and the duration of the taper.

‘It’s best to reduce volume but maintain intensity,’ Newton says. ‘You have to be up for training, so if you reduce intensity your nervous system thinks, “Great, I can relax.”

‘Intensity demands your nervous system switches on, without putting undue stress on the body.’

‘I’d suggest reducing the duration of your total workload by as much as 40-60%,’ says Stern. ‘So if you normally ride 12 hours a week, a 40% taper would take you down to seven hours and 15 minutes.

‘I’d also reduce the number of intervals or harder efforts, but without reducing the intensity. Don’t stop doing intervals altogether, and don’t stop working hard.’

There are two ways of doing it: a ‘step reduction’, where you cut back training by a set amount for the whole length of the taper, and a ‘progressive reduction’, where you reduce training throughout the length of the taper.

‘If you’re doing a three-week taper, it makes sense to do it progressively,’ says Newton. ‘Knock 40% off in the first week, then 40% off that and so on. Just don’t end up at zero.

‘But it depends on how complicated you want to make it. There will be a benefit however you reduce the volume, but making it seem complicated can have a placebo effect. If you think it’s scientific, the benefits might be greater.

‘What you believe can be as important as what you do, so long as you do something.’

‘In my experience, I’ve found reducing total workload for a week or two prior to the event is the best way forward,’ says Stern.

‘Some riders may only have one week of tapering, others may have two. Whether the second week is different to the first varies between athletes, depending on how they feel.’

Use it, don’t lose it

Just as it’s important not to overtrain for an event, you have to be careful that tapering doesn’t result in losing fitness – what’s known as ‘detraining’.

‘This occurs rapidly when you stop training – blood volume can start to decrease in as little as 24 hours, which can have a detrimental effect on VO2 max,’ says Stern.

‘If you reduce training too rapidly or take too much time off, mild detraining can make your legs feel leaden.

‘If this happens close to an event, go for a steady ride the day before – somewhere between 60 and 150 minutes – and include a few “leg openers” of between two and five minutes at about the effort you can sustain for a 25-mile TT.

‘Fitness can be maintained with significant reductions in total training volume – maybe even up to 70%,’ says Stern. ‘But it all comes back to intensity.’

Volume, however, is relative, and Stern says it’s important that you’re actually training enough to warrant tapering: ‘If your total training volume isn’t that large, tapering for more than a couple of days could be highly detrimental as you’d lose fitness.

‘Where this line is will be different for everyone, but if you’re under 50 years of age and your total training is no more than 10 hours a week you’re probably unlikely to need to taper
for more than a couple of days.’

There is, perhaps, an unexpected twist. ‘The shorter the event, the more important the taper,’ says Stern.

‘So, tapering is crucial for events such as 200m track sprinting, but less important for very long events such as a 12-hour time-trial.

‘Although that’s not to say you won’t need to taper for a long event, or that you’ll need complete rest prior to a sprint.’

Give me my fix!

Some people just don’t want to do it, though. ‘Some athletes, no matter how much you explain to them that tapering can be beneficial, just can’t take such reductions – it makes them anxious or it affects their quality of life,’ says Stern.

‘People who are nervous or twitchy about racing prefer to train. It helps them focus and takes their mind off the nerves.’

For those people, finding new areas to focus on could help. For example, instead of training, they can spend time checking equipment, practising bike repairs, visualising the race or focusing on nutrition and hydration strategies.

‘If you’ve cut 10 hours off your training you’ll find yourself at a loose end,’ says Newton. ‘Make a plan for that time, or you’ll end up digging the garden rather than recovering.

‘Visualisation is important for making pre-decisions,’ he adds. ‘Visualise the things that could happen that you interpret as being a disaster and make a decision about what you’re going to do.

‘Tired, emotional decisions are crap decisions, and if you make those you’re more likely to end up throwing your bike in a hedge.’

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