Using science to help design a tapering programme for cyclists.
(Reproduced with the kind permission of Peak Performance Newsletter)
It is often said, with some justification, that coaching is more of an art than a science. Many good coaches have learnt their craft through years of dedicated service to a sport they love. Much of the anecdotal evidence they have gathered over the years has equal validity with the hard, scientific evidence gathered by sports scientists in a laboratory. It is only a narrow-minded scientist who rejects out of hand a coach's wealth of experience, just as it is only the blinkered coach who ignores good, solid scientific evidence which can be incorporated into his athletes' training programmes. One area where much of what coaches have learnt is broadly similar to the findings of sports science is tapering for competition.
Most coaches and cyclists believe that tapering will enhance race performance. It is patently obvious that if a cyclist trains hard on a Saturday, he is unlikely to perform well in a race on Sunday. The tapering process is frequently described using such terms as 'super-' or 'over-compensation'. What tapering is meant to do is reverse training-induced fatigue without losing any of the training adaptations. But the worry for many coaches and their athletes is that there will be a loss of physical conditioning if training is reduced for several days or longer.
Most coaches and athletes, whatever their sport, use a periodised training routine broadly similar to that outlined by L.P. Matveyev. This routine, which emerged from the old Soviet Union in the 1960s, divided a time period into macro-, meso- and micro-cycles. The bigger macro-cycle might encompass a whole year, from the end of one season to the end of the next. This is broken down into meso-cycles, normally lasting four-to-six weeks, which in turn are broken down into micro-cycles. For ease, these are most often split into weekly periods. Matveyev said that the final micro-cycle should have the lowest work load for the athlete. In other words, the meso-cycles have a built-in taper.
Although this type of training regime is basically sound, it does not answer the question of how much the final week's training should be. Most coaches have probably found the answer to this through experience, but this is an area where sports science has plenty of really good evidence to offer. Several studies, mainly with runners, have shown that when tapering is done properly there will not be any loss but a real gain in physical conditioning. Houmard (1991) showed that maximal exercise measures such as VO2max and maximal speed were maintained for 10-28 days with reductions in weekly training volume of 70-80 per cent. He also found that certain key blood measures, such as haemoglobin concentration and blood volume, were maintained or improved with 5-21 days reduced training, as was the ability of the working muscles to consume fuel aerobically. Sub-maximal exercise measures, such as running economy and post-exercise lactate, were also maintained or improved with a 70-90 per cent reduction in training volume over 6-21 days.
Shepley et al (1992) also found that following a high-intensity but low-volume seven-day taper, running time to fatigue was significantly improved. Similarly, Neary et al (1992) found positive changes in glycogen storage and oxidative enzymes, as well as a higher power output at the ventilation threshold (broadly speaking, the highest rate of work which can be maintained sub-maximally) following a four-day and eight-day taper. What all these tapers did was to maintain the training frequency but drastically reduce the training volume. In fact, Shepley et al (1992) found that both a low-intensity and moderate-volume taper, and a rest-only taper, did not alter running time to exhaustion. I have adapted the methods used in these studies and applied them to coaching cyclists.
Although the findings from Houmard's study are impressive, few athletes would feel confident about reducing their training volumes by as much and as long as this study suggests. However, the evidence is clear: tapering works. I have found through experience that very few cyclists are willing to believe the scientific evidence and reduce their normal training load by more than 50 per cent during the tapering week. In fact, how many club cyclists do the opposite, and actually make the week before a key competition the week they do the most mileage? Most of the cyclists I coach used to train this way. Now, however, all of them, despite some initial scepticism, firmly believe in and strictly follow a tapering regime before races they have targeted.
Because of the reluctance to reduce the workload in the final micro-cycle, the tapering programme used by Neary et al (1992) is the easiest to use in a real-life setting. This is because it is easier to convince cyclists to believe in a reduction of training volume of 50 per cent rather than 90 per cent. A pragmatic decision has to be made, and this is basically the tapering programme that I use:
The table shows the final two micro-cycles of a club cyclist's in-season meso-cycle. This cyclist is racing every week, but now tries to 'target' particular races. In the final week's training his work load has been reduced from 315 to 165 minutes, but the frequency and intensity have remained constant.
The levels of training referred to are those defined by Peter Keen, where level two is exercising at a heart rate of 35-45 and level three is 15-25 beats below maximum. Houmard's (1991) and Shepley et al's (1992) results are very impressive, and if you have an athlete who is confident about reducing his workload to such a degree then the evidence suggests that he will gain a very real physical benefit.
The reason why I have not pushed the cyclists I coach into such an aggressive taper routine is that they need to believe fully that it will work if they are not to suffer adverse psychological reactions. And the need to be mentally fit for competition is as important in many ways as being physiologically fit.
This kind of information is available on a regular basis in the monthly Peak Performance Newsletter online or in print