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21. 7. 2012.

Tapering for peak performance

Peak performance requires maximal physical and psychological tolerance for the stress of the activity. But periods of intense training reduce muscular strength, decreasing athletes’ performance capacity. For this reason, to compete at their peak, many athletes reduce their training intensity and volume before a major competition to give their bodies and minds a break from the rigors of intense training. This practice is reffered to as tapering. The taper period, during which intensity and volume are reduced, should provide adequate time for healing of tissue damage caused by intense training and for the body’s energy reserves to be fully replenished. Research suggests that, for example, taper periods range from 4 to 28 days or longer, depending on the sport, the event, and the athlete’s needs. Tapering is not appropriate for all sports, particularly those where competition occurs once a week or more frequently. Still, rested athletes generally perform better.
The most notable change during the taper period is a marked increase in muscular strength, which explains at least part of the performance improvement that occurs. It is difficult to determine whether strength improvements result from changes in the muscles’ contractile mechanisms or improved muscle fiber recruitment. However, examination of individual muscle fibers taken from swimmers’ arms before and after 10 days of intensified training showed that the type II(fast-twitch) fibers exhibited a significant reduction in their maximal shortening velocity. This change has been attributed to changes in the fibers’ myosin molecules. In these cases, the myosin in the type II fibers became more like that in the type I fibers. We assume from this finding that such changes in the muscle fibers cause the power loss that swimmers and runners experience during prolonged periods of intense training. We can also assume that the recovery of strength and power that occurs with tapering is linked to modifications of the muscles’ contractile mechanisms. Tapering also allows time for the muscle to repair any damage incurred during intense training and for the energy reserves(i.e. , muscle and liver glycogen) to be restored.
Although tapering is widely practiced in a variety of sports, many coaches fear that reduced training for such a long period before a major competition will decrease conditioning and impair performance. But numerous studies clearly show that this fear is unwarranted. Developing optimal VO2max initially requires a considerable amount of training, but once it has been developed, much less training even when training frequency is reduced by two-thirds.
Runners and swimmers who reduce their training by about 60% for 15 to 21 days show no losses in VO2max or endurance performance. One study showed that swimmers’ blood lactate concentrations after a standard swim were lower after a taper period than before. More important, the swimmers experienced a 3.1% improvement in performance as a result of the reduced training and demonstrated a 17.7% to 24.6% increase in arm strength and power.
In a study of distance runners, those runners who went through a seven-day taper decreased their running time in a 5km time trial by 3% compared to no improvement in those who did not taper. Submaximal oxygen uptake during running at 80% VO2max was decreased by 6% in those who tapered, indicating a greater economy of effort. Blood lactate concentrations at 80% of VO2max were unchanged, as were VO2max and leg extension peak force.
Unfortunately, little information is available to demonstrate the influence of tapering on performance in team sports and in long-duration endurance events such as cycling and marathon running. Before guidelines can be offered for athletes in these sports, research is needed to demonstrate that similar benefits can be generated by such periods of reduced training.

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