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Tapering for competition

[This article originally appeared in the April 2000 issue of Northwest Runner magazine.]

This month's topic is tapering, i.e., reducing one's training load in preparation for an important end-of-season race. It doesn't take an exercise scientist to determine that you should take it easy before a big race, but how exactly should you do this? Should you cruise through a few final "tune-up" intervals, limit yourself to slow jogs around the block, or just lie in bed for a few days? As we shall see, the best-designed studies tend to favor the first approach.

I refer to the "best-designed" studies because many investigations of tapering are poorly controlled and thus yield difficult-to-interpret results. A typically unenlightening study will test some athletes at mid-season and again at the end of the season and will report that, lo and behold, they're faster at the end. But is this due to the end-of-season taper itself, the high-quality training done just prior to the taper, a placebo effect (they think they're ready to perform better and therefore do), the superior competition offered by the end-of-season championships, or something else? It's hard to say for sure. In light of these issues, this article focuses on studies that compare different types of tapers (and thus minimize the influence of factors unrelated to the tapers themselves).

Mileage: less is more

Many runners, myself included, are hesitant to cut their weekly mileage by more than 25% prior to a race out of fear that they will lose some of their hard-earned fitness. Nevertheless, research indicates that drastic short-term reductions in training volume do not in and of themselves compromise performance. For instance, Shepley et al. (Journal of Applied Physiology 72: 706-711, 1992) and Houmard et al. (Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 26: 624-631, 1994) subjected veteran runners to treadmill tests before and after a one-week taper which reduced their mileage by 70-85%. Following the taper, these athletes performed significantly better on the treadmill tests (which were designed to simulate 1500- and 5000-meter races) than they had before the taper.

Studies of highly trained swimmers (Mujika et al., Canadian Journal of Applied Physiology 20: 395-406, 1995) and triathletes (Banister et al., European Journal of Applied Physiology 79: 182-191, 1999) also support the idea that "less is more." When the swimmers reduced their training volume by 10-40% for three weeks, a good correlation was found between the percentage reduction in volume and the percentage improvement in performance. That is, the swimmers who swam the least during the three-week period performed best in their post-taper races. Similarly, when two groups of tapering triathletes were compared, the group that trained less over a 13-day period performed better on an intense post-taper cycling test.

If a volume reduction of 40-85% is acceptable, how about a reduction of 100%? Shepley's subjects, as well as some of Houmard's, were subjected to this regimen as well. After seven days of no running, the subjects did about as well on the treadmill as they had prior to the taper.

The above results suggest that, while runners can take several days off without suffering greatly, a small training load is preferable to none at all. Additional studies on swimmers (Neufer et al., Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 19: 486-490, 1987) and weightlifters (Gibala et al., International Journal of Sports Medicine 15: 492-497, 1994) have reached similar conclusions.

Training intensity: more is more

Assuming that you cut lots of miles out of your schedule while tapering, how fast should you run those remaining miles? In the above-cited studies by Shepley et al. and Houmard et al., the low mileage subjects completed several brief-but-challenging interval workouts during their seven-day taper. These subjects performed better after the taper than beforehand, in contrast to subjects (in the Shepley study) whose taper consisted entirely of easy jogging. Thus, small doses of high-quality intervals appear to maximize the effectiveness of a pre-race taper.

Modeling a shapely taper

A final question one might ask about tapering is, should reductions in training volume be gradual or sudden? Based on a mathematical model of performance, Banister et al. hypothesized that an exponential reduction in training volume (in which daily mileage is gradually diminished over several days) would be superior to a step reduction (in which daily mileage is suddenly dropped and then held constant thereafter). They then conducted a ten-day taper with two groups of triathletes: an "exponential" group and a "step" group. Following the taper, the exponentially tapered group outperformed the step-tapered group on a stationary bicycle test, supporting the idea that training volume should be reduced gradually and progressively as race day approaches.

In conclusion, don't be afraid to try scaling your workouts way back in the final seven to 14 days before a major competition. Obviously, you can't do this before every race; that would prevent you from getting much training in. When you need to run your absolute best, however, an emphasis on high-quality workouts and extremely low mileage should help you fulfill your potential.

Strength training for marathoners?

Finally, before I sign off, I'd like to clarify a potentially confusing aspect of last month's article.

As you may recall, my previous column was illustrated with a huge picture of a puny-looking marathoner, namely, me. In the caption, editor Martin Rudow wrote, "Obviously he has not yet started his muscle-building regime, knowing that it has yet to demonstrate benefits for longer distance runners." While humorous and well-intentioned, this statement is also somewhat misleading, since I do engage in strength training -- jumping and bounding exercises, wind sprints, hills, etc. -- as part of my normal marathon training program.

But why? Didn't I myself write, "We don't yet know whether strength training is useful in preparing for running races longer than 5 kilometers"? Yes, I did -- and it's true that strength training has never been shown to improve marathon performance in a controlled scientific study. What I failed to acknowledge, however, was that even though we don't know for sure whether strength training is beneficial to marathoners, we can still make an educated guess.

In assessing whether strength training might help marathoners, the work of Heikki Rusko's laboratory (described in detail last month) is particularly instructive. In his study of training with weight vests, the vest-wearing runners improved their VO2max (rate of maximal oxygen consumption) and lactate threshold (speed at which lactate begins to accumulate in the blood). In his more recent study of explosive strength training, the strength-trained group improved their running economy (power generated per unit of oxygen consumed) and 5K times.

VO2max, lactate threshold, and economy are not themselves measures of racing performance. However, all three correlate well with performance in events lasting 30 minutes or more (Coyle, Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews 23: 25-63, 1995), so improvements in these parameters may enable marathoners to run faster. Let's not neglect the obvious, either: if someone pares 30+ seconds off of his/her 5K time (as Rusko's strength-trained runners did), isn't he/she now ready to run a faster marathon as well? Yes, probably, though not necessarily.

Thus, it seems reasonable to speculate that strength training may lead to improved marathon performance as well. I can't prove this, however; it is simply an opinion based on indirect evidence. Like any coaching methodology, Research-Based Coaching has its limitations, and one of them is that there sometimes just aren't enough data for us to reach a clear, firm conclusion. In these situations, I recommend consulting the twin coaches of Intuition and Common Sense. These two coaching giants may not always be right, but, for the most part, they'll keep you out of serious trouble.

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