• Tapering: You’re Doing it Wrong

    (For a first-hand account of how this theory applied to an athlete of mine, see Matt Brickman’s race recap.)

    If you’ve ever tapered for a race or competition I am confident you did it wrong.

    “But it worked, I set a PR and won the competition!”

    Lucky for you things worked out despite what you did, not because of it.

    In strength or sports training, tapering is the practice of reducing activity level in the days leading up to an event or contest. I’ve heard of tapering practices anywhere from one to two weeks before competition.

    This is clearly wrong in theory, which I will demonstrate, but I’ve now proven it in enough real world circumstances that I am confident my position holds water.

    The chart is a visual representation of what happens in a strength training program on its most basic level. You begin low, ramping up intensity until you exceed your current capacity with a new PR. If you’re lucky, this happens on game day. You could substitute the word volume for intensity and you would have more of an endurance training model. For the sake of discussion, we can set aside the intricacies of waving/manipulating volume/density/intensity.

    The graphical representation is actually a phenomenal representation of what happens in the body. If you had a charting system that could plot the effect of each workout as a data point, you would see something that looks remarkably like the chart above. However, any day you don’t train or your training is not headed in the direction of the new PR, the chart gets a data point as well. There in lies the rub.

    Here is what a chart looks like when you taper before a contest, it looks like you have a problem, doesn’t it?

    At The Movement Minneapolis we use a system called adaptifier that gives us exactly such a visual representation of training.

    As an example, I’ll show you the chart of a runner whom I prepared for a marathon in 16 days. An injury kept him from training before that time. When you mouse-over the image, you will see the last data point which is the race. Can you guess where the data point will be before you mouse-over?

    Chart 2

    Is it any surprise he was able to finish and PR? Despite only 16 days and 5 training runs?

    For contrast, I took the last 3 weeks of a popular Hal Higdon running program and plotted them on a chart using my Adaptifier Index formula. I used the mileage called for by Higdon’s plan and made two assumptions: consistent 9 minute miles at a Perceived Exertion of 8.

    Again, the image is of the training leading up to the race, when you mouse-over the race is included in the chart.

    Chart 2

    The last 3 weeks of the Higdon program actually have you on a downslope, and somehow, miraculously you are supposed to be able to reach new heights when race day comes. This is simply not how physiology works.

    “But I ran a marathon with Higdon’s program and it worked just fine!” Absolutely, as have many thousands of others. Your capacity for distress can allow you to do a lot of things you wouldn’t expect – that doesn’t make it the best way. Every year there is a report of a grandmother lifting a car off a child. I wouldn’t recommend running over children as a way to get grandma to lift some weights.

    I used running a marathon to illustrate my point, but running is not special and neither is cycling, weightlifting, or playing football. The rules that govern physiology do not care what movement you’re doing. I’ve seen people “taper” two weeks out from a powerlifting meet and completely bomb. As I have learned more about my limits, I have typically trained three times the week of a contest, with one of the days purposely being extremely high intensity.

    What I encourage you to do now is put it to the test. I might be completely full of crap. But my client who ran a marathon with only 5 training runs says otherwise.