Although the taper has been a hotly contested topic for decades, a consensus of a sort has emerged. Hit peak training load for two to four weeks. Subsequently reduce training volume while keeping up the intensity the 10-14 days leading up to your goal race. But is there a better way to taper for your goal races?
Last week, researchers Rønnestad and Vikmoen at Inland University in Norway, published a paper which challenges this method. Although their study looked at cyclists, the physiological results are relevant for runners as well.
A Compressed Approach to Tapering
Inspired by the tight schedule of elite athletes, the researches set out to find out if a shortened taper period could be more effective. This alternative taper method lasts for a total of 11 days. It begins with a highly intensive overload period of six days with hard training, followed by a step-taper the next five days leading into race day.
Speaking to NRK, lead author of the paper, professor of sports physiology Bent Rønnestad, claims that this alternative approach leaves you in better shape on race day:
“We can see in all variables that are important for endurance performance that this new method is better than the traditional.”Bent Rønnestad
Reducing the taper period to about a week isn’t breaking new ground. Compressing the overload period from the traditional two to four weeks, however, is a novel approach. And the data from this study do indeed indicate that it may be an effective one, too.
Increased Endurance After the Taper Period
The researchers looked at three variables to measure endurance after the taper period. The cyclists who underwent the compressed taper showed significantly better results after the taper in both VO2 max and 1-minute peak power output.
Likewise, the power output at lactate threshold intensity (defined here as blood lactate concentration at four mmol) had improved more among the athletes who went through the compressed taper. Based on the results, the authors are definitive in their conclusion. They claim the effects of the compressed taper are moderate to large compared to a more traditional approach.
Should You Alter Your Training Plans?
While the data from this study are encouraging, I would not recommend that any runners switch up their taper plans just yet. First and foremost, the subjects of this study were cyclists. While five-six days of hard training could be feasible for cyclists, it is asking for trouble if you’re a runner.
Furthermore, there are other factors at play in the activity of running compared to cycling as well. Most notably, getting muscle tension right on race day, to “feel good” is perhaps the most challenging part of a taper. I’m not sure the five-day step taper will be ideal for most runners in that regard.
And, as with most sport science studies, the usual caveats apply. The number of participants is tiny. There were nine and eight athletes using the compressed and traditional tapers, respectively. The subjects are also highly trained athletes. There is no guarantee that a similar study on comparatively lower level athletes will reproduce similar results.
Related reading: The Hearts and Guts of a Runner
All the same, the results of the study are encouraging. Hopefully, others will test a similar approach for runners and document the results. And, if you’re feeling adventurous and facing a tight race schedule, it could be worth trying a compressed taper for yourself. If it turns out to be a better way to taper for your goal races, be sure to let us know.