As a person who trains and competes in multiple sports I have consistently been told that I need to taper my training before a major competition. But what does this really mean? If I’m getting ready for a running race should I be taking it easy and jogging through my last week? Should I do fewer runs? Or shorter ones? And what about dragon boating, where we only practice twice a week, do we even need to do a taper?
Most research on tapering is done on marathon athletes. In these cases, I can totally understand tapering because running such long periods can have a significant negative effect on the body. The taper allows the body to recover, repair, and replenish so that it typically performs better on race day. Does the same apply for shorter distances, including sprints?
For these cases, a taper can still have significant benefits, but only if you maintain a high intensity. So you can decrease the volume of training, but if you decrease the intensity you will actually experience losses in performance.
So what does this mean in practice? Well, you need to figure out how long of a taper you need; depending on your normal training volume this may be 3 days or it could be 3 weeks – for my dragon boat team 3 days is enough based on the training load going in. When I train for triathlons I do about a week of taper because I do significantly more training sessions compared to dragon boating.
Then you need to figure out drills and work outs of a high intensity that are perhaps shorter than your normal workouts. We typically do mock races in the couple practices leading up to festival. In the practice before we will still do mock races but we might do less of them overall, or we might do shorter high intensity pieces.
So what are the benefits of these high intensity pieces? First, they do not result in a subsequent loss of performance due to physiological changes. Second, and related, they can result in subsequent physiological and performance related improvements.
So, yes tapering is beneficial, but only if you keep your intensity.
Mujika, I. (2010), Intense training: the key to optimal performance before and during the taper. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 20: 24–31. doi: 10.1111/j.1600-0838.2010.01189.x