Tapering’ is a term used in endurance sports and basically means to reduce an athlete’s training load before a major race. Personal experience and scientific research have both come to the conclusion that a period of enforced rest before racing significantly increases the athlete’s level of fitness and boosts his performance by an average of 3%. For marathon runners three per cent boils down to being about 5-10 minutes faster over their racing distance.
When asked about the secret to her successes, triple Olympic speed skating champion Yvonne Van Gennep remarked, “There is no secret. It just comes down to training hard and then putting on the handbrake.” Van Gennep could not have given a better or clearer explanation, for this allegorical ‘handbrake’ is precisely what tapering is all about. The term ‘tapering’ was coined in 1947 by Australian Olympic swimming coach Forbes Carlile and physiology professor Frank Cotton, who discovered that their swimmers performed much better when they eased their training in the last three weeks before competition. It was only much later that this discovery was also used in other endurance sports like running.
The biochemical explanation for tapering is that by resting the body it can recover from the shock of weeks and months of hard training and thus stand the best chance for a peak racing performance. The heavy training undertaken by the athlete prior to the race has assailed and greatly depleted his body’s enzyme, glycogen and hormone stores plus impaired the natural resilience or ‘spring’ in his legs by causing subtle muscle damage. Tapering allows the body to replenish all these reserves and repair its muscle tissues so it can toe the starting line fully recovered and in optimum shape.
For runners a period of tapering can last anywhere from 10 to 21 days, often depending on the length of the ensuing race – the longer the race, the longer the taper. During this period the runner should decreases his weekly mileage by anywhere from 30% to 85%. Although some suggest a gradual decrease in training volume, a scientific study undertaken in 1999 showed that during a 14 day taper a rapid mileage decrease of 50% during the first three days, followed by 75% in the next three days and continued by a steady decrease over the last eight days resulted in the best racing performance. It was also shown that, contrary to popular belief, running during the tapering period should be done at high intensities. Intervals at 5K race pace and fast paced tempo runs are advised.
Runners often shun the tapering period because they are afraid of losing fitness. That this is an unfounded and baseless fear is shown by the myriad examples of great athletic success following a period of non-training. Often these periods of rest were not voluntarily chosen but rather forced upon by circumstances from outside. One such example is the case of Carlos Lopes who won the 1984 Olympic marathon after an accident prevented him from doing any running during the last 10 days before the event. Joan Benoit won the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trial in 1984 after knee surgery forced her to reduce her training just before the race. She attributed her victory primarily to the fact that the surgery had forced her to train less. Later she went on to grab the gold medal in the first ever women’s Olympic marathon. Another proof of the tapering formula is the story of how the immortal Czech runner Emil Zatopek became the 1950 European champion in the 5000 and 10,000 metres. Just two days before the event he was released from hospital after an illness had forced him to spend two full weeks there, preventing him from doing any training at all. And Roger Bannister only succeeded in breaking the elusive four minute barrier in the mile and setting the World Record for that distance after he had spent a week of rock climbing in Scotland in which he hadn’t done any running.
The obvious conclusion is that resting before racing is a must for any athlete wanting to perform to his or her max. It seems strange that this so often proven, tried and tested strategy is still overlooked by a large number of athletes. Yet less is more – in life as well as in sports.