Tapering For Size, Strength and Peak Performance

Jacob M. Wilson, M.S., CSCS, and Gabriel J. Wilson, M.S., CSCS

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Should we take time off from training? Some athletes dread the very thought of it; others take time off regularly in order to avoid burnout and overtraining. Which group is correct? Turns out neither is completely right—taking time off has been consistently shown to lead to de-adaptation, including decreased force production, glycogen stores and muscle size.1

Yet the need to lower training load to avoid burnout is evidenced by studies indicating that 10 percent of athletes suffer from overtraining every year.2 Enter tapering, a method scientists have shown can not only relieve signs of overtraining but also improve strength and muscle size.

We recently reviewed the concept of tapering in the Strength and Conditioning Journal.3 What follows is a summary of our findings for the hardcore readers of IRON MAN. What Is the Taper, and How Does It Work?

Tapering involves systematically decreasing training load to facilitate a fitness peak. The physiological basis for the taper is explained by Banister’s fitness and fatigue model.4 Basically, performance is considered to be the difference between fitness gains, such as muscle mass and neurological adaptations, and fatigue effects, such as an accumulation of the stress hormone cortisol and the depletion of muscle glycogen stores. The goal of tapering is to maintain or improve the fitness gains while reducing fatigue.

How to Implement It

The training load can be manipulated through a number of variables, including intensity, volume, frequency and the duration. The most important variable is intensity. In normal gym terms intensity is defined as how focused or hardcore you are; however, in scientific literature it’s defined as the percentage of a maximal lift.5 For example, if you can bench-press 200 pounds once, working out with 160 pounds would be 80 percent of your maximal intensity.

That suggests that weightlifters must continue to lift as heavy as possible during a taper, and endurance athletes must continue to run as fast as possible.

The second most important variable appears to be training frequency.6 You should decrease it only slightly or maintain it. For example, if you work out five times per week, then during a taper you might take one extra day off.

Training volume appears to be the least most important factor for maintaining fitness gains. Thus, the most effective tapers lower training volume by 30 to 90 percent, depending on the type of athletic activity and duration of the taper.

For experienced athletes the duration of the taper should be seven to 28 days, depending on the amount of fatigue accumulated. Lower volume by 50 to 90 percent, depending on the duration of the taper. So for a short taper you may want to lower volume closer to 90 percent and for a longer taper closer to 50 percent. Inexperienced athletes should taper off for seven to 30 days, with a more modest 30 to 40 percent reduction in training volume.

You should also consider how you decrease your training load. You can either drop it by 50 percent—known as a step taper—or drop it progressively by perhaps 10 percent each day—known as a linear, or exponential, taper. Current studies indicate that exponential tapers are more effective than step tapers, but that research is equivocal.

If you’re concerned with body composition, you should lower calories slightly during a taper. Conversely, if you’re peaking for an event, you should load carbohydrates.

Studies indicate that athletes can expect a 5 percent improvement in performance, a 10 percent increase in muscle mass and a 1 to 9 percent improvement in VO2 max, as well as less muscle damage and inflammation and lower stress hormones. They can also expect greater positive affect, less sleep disturbance and a more anabolic environment, as evidenced by the higher testosterone-to-cortisol ratio that emerges after tapering.

When to Implement the Taper

• Overtraining—if you experience signs of overtraining, such as poorer performance, fatigue and the like, you may consider implementing a taper.