In his blog post, Renström refers to the probably best quoted study about tapering in recent years which is a metaanalysis of the effects of tapering on athletic performance by Bosquet and colleagues (Bosquet et al “Effects of tapering on performance: A meta-analysis” Med Sci Sports Exerc 2007; 39: 1358-1365). In this metaanalysis 27 out of 182 potential studies of tapering on competitive athletes were included and there was for instance eight studies of swimmers (number of athletes [N] = 249), six studies of cyclists (N = 80) and nine studies on runners (N = 110). The overall results show a maximal, albeit still small to moderate, gain of a tapering intervention of 2-weeks duration where the training volume is exponentially decreased by 41-60%, without any modification of either training intensity or frequency (see Figure below). The mean improvement was 1.96%, clearly of relevance for competitive athletes as such an improvement in for instance Olympic swimming or track and field running is larger than the difference between the gold medalist and fourth place in general.
|The effect of tapering (From Bosquet et al 2007)|
|The effect of tapering in different sports (From Bosquet et al 2007)|
|Different types of tapering (From Mujika et al 2003)|
Other limitations of the meta-analysis by Bosquet and colleagues is that in most studies included there were only men so it is unclear whether the results could be applied directly also to women. The physiology and metabolism between men and women has in several studies been shown to be different. The effect of age is also unclear, as is the athletes training status before the taper, whether they were overtrained/overreached or not, jet-lag and pre-competition travel, altitude acclimatization, heat/cold acclimatization, hydration and nutritional status (i.e. carbohydrate loading of glycogen stores) are also possible co-founders. The physiological and molecular effects of tapering are still unclear, even though there is starting to appear some mechanistic studies in for instance runners (Luden et al ” Myocellular basis for tapering in competitive distance runners” J Appl Physiol 2010; 108: 1501-9).
One very interesting finding in Bosquet’s meta-analysis is that the training load should not be reduced on the expense of training frequency or intensity. Several studies have found that reducing training intensity during tapering is negative and leads to a decrease in performance (reviewed in for instance Mujika et al “Physiological changes associated with the pre-event taper in athletes” Sports Med 2004; 34: 891-927 and Smith “A Framework for understanding the training process leading to elite performance” Sports Med 2003; 33: 1103-1126). It is important to retain a very high intensity of over 80-90% VO2max. One variant of a tapering scheme with volume reduction, but not training intensity is the Magness-Salazar taper, also mentioned in Renström’s blog post. In this scheme, the last week is focused on short fast intervals on hard surfaces. There are no scientific studies of the tapering scheme, but for track and field running it appears winning as it is employed by for instance Mo Farah and Galen Rupp (gold and silver medalist on 10000 meters in the 2012 Olympics in London). It is unclear whether this is relevant for mountain ultramarathon running, however, as such short training and at such high intensity might not be relevant for these distances and this kind of terrain. Personally, I tend to replace some of my volume trainings with short hard Fartlek in technical terrain, it is fun and inspiring for both the legs and the brain and I did this even before the really long Tor des Géants last year.
|Mo Farah & Galen Rupp in London Olympics|
A new venue of research appears to be monitoring of the tapering through continuous analysis of the cardiac autonomic function, by following for instance post-exercise heart rate recovery (HRR) or heart rate variability (HRV) and this is possible for most athletes today through pulse watches with heart rate monitoring (reviewed in Buchheit “Monitioring training status with HR measures: do all roads lead to Rome?” Fron Physiol 2014; 5: 1-19). This is potentially very interesting and I look forward to the findings from research in this area in the coming years.
Again, there are no specific taper studies in ultramarathon athletes to my knowledge and I think the general advice to find a method that works for oneself is perhaps the best. Looking at other blog posts about tapering for ultramarathon runners, for instance by Torrence at Irunfar, Bleakman at Ultra168 and Elson at Centurion Running, they also come to the same general conclusions.