How should I train in the final week before my race?
Racing is one kind of test that you really can't cram for. Decades of trial and error - along with common sense - suggest that resting up by "tapering" - or reducing - your training will pay off with a better performance on race day.
But applying this basic idea is trickier than it appears. You have to decide when to start reducing your training, and how to adjust the volume, frequency and intensity of your workouts - and you need to remain confident that you're not throwing away all your hard work.
"If athletes are used to training at a certain volume and intensity and they start to reduce it, the psychology is 'I'm losing fitness, I can't back off,' " says Scott Trappe, the director of the Human Performance Laboratory at Ball State University in Indiana. "As a result, many of them never really rest properly."
The benefits of precompetition tapering have been demonstrated in dozens of studies of runners, swimmers, cyclists, rowers and triathletes, with a typical performance boost of 2 to 8 per cent compared to simply maintaining training as usual. A new study by Dr. Trappe, to be published later this year in the Journal of Applied Physiology, offers some hints about where this performance boost comes from - and provides some reassurance for athletes nervous about resting too much.
He and his colleagues took a series of muscle biopsies from university cross-country runners preparing for a championship race. Surprisingly, they found that the individual muscle fibres responsible for explosive power in the legs actually got bigger and contracted more powerfully after the training reduction.
"On a molecular level, the wheels are so greased that the engines proceed at a high rate even after you reduce your training," explains Dr. Trappe. This creates a window of opportunity during which the delicate balance between muscle synthesis and breakdown shifts to favour muscle growth.
In contrast, the researchers found no change in measures of cardiovascular endurance such as VO2max. This suggests that it's the muscle adaptation that provides the performance boost of tapering - and just as importantly, that a brief period of less training doesn't compromise endurance. The result: The runners raced 6 per cent faster over 8 kilometres than they had just three weeks earlier.
Planning the perfect taper remains more art than science, but some basic principles were set out in a 2007 review paper by exercise scientist Laurent Bosquet and his colleagues at the University of Montreal. After analyzing the results of 127 studies, they concluded that a taper should last roughly two weeks, with a gradual reduction so that the total training volume (distance covered) in the final week before competition is 40 to 60 per cent of a normal week.
Crucially, they also found that frequency (how many workouts you do) and intensity (how hard you push) shouldn't be adjusted - the workouts should just be shorter than usual. If you reduce intensity, you risk losing some fitness. And the opposite mistake - pushing a little harder because you're feeling fresh - is just as bad, because then you don't get the rest you need.
These guidelines provide a starting point, but it takes some trial and error to find out what works best for you, Dr. Bosquet says. Some people require much longer than others to dissipate accumulated fatigue. And the level of training also matters: If you're only training a few times a week, then you likely only need a few days of rest before racing.
Whatever the details, one message is clear: The final week or two before a competition is one time when "no pain, no gain" definitely doesn't apply.
World Cup tapering
Leading up to the 2002 World Cup, Swedish researchers recruited 11 top-notch European soccer teams (including Manchester United and Arsenal from England, Italy's AC Milan and Juventus and Real Madrid from Spain) to monitor the training and playing load of their players. The data showed that the players who went on to underperform at the World Cup had played an average of 12.5 matches during the final 10 weeks of the season, while the players who exceeded expectations had played only nine matches - a clear sign that some form of tapering helped players dissipate fatigue and play their best on the biggest stage.
Alex Hutchinson blogs about research on exercise at www.sweatscience.com.