Tapering before a big event (such as a marathon, century or long-distance triathlon) gives the body a chance to rest so athletes can be at their absolute best on race day. The idea is to help them maximize the strength and fitness gains they’ve made over previous weeks or months; coming into the event well rested is the best way to do that. However, as workout duration decreases, it’s important to keep intensity high to help athletes retain their “edge.” Now is the time for short, hard intervals and race-pace efforts to refine technique and allow clients to get a good feel for their desired competition pace.

Despite the fact that the sudden decrease in volume will leave most athletes feeling antsy, a common complaint in the tapering phase is sluggishness. While this feeling is perfectly normal, it can create serious prerace anxiety. I tell my athletes it’s just the training settling into the body and they’ll be fine for the competition. I also warn against doing too much outside of training and say that now is the time for rest. Although they may have a sudden burst of energy that tells them this is a great time to remodel their basement, it’s not their best option.

Taper length is a very individual consideration that depends on the athlete’s preferences and the length of the event. A taper for a half-marathon might last only a week, while a taper for an Ironman®-distance triathlon might last almost a month. While there are some “standard” taper periods, truly perfecting a taper plan requires a degree of trial and error with some athletes. If clients are exhausted coming into their event, try adding a few days next time. If they sail through their workouts throughout the taper but can’t seem to get it in gear during the race, the taper might have been too long.

Dawn Dolobowsky, CSCS

USAT Level 1 Coach and ACSM-

Certified Personal Trainer

Seattle, Washington

Tapering is important for mixed martial arts (MMA) athletes. Some background: Most professional MMA fights are scheduled to include three 5-minute rounds. While 15 minutes may not seem long to the layperson, MMA is one of the most intense and physically taxing events in sports. Typically, athletes will train 8–12 weeks for a fight. That’s roughly 160 hours—or 9,600 minutes—of training for something that, at most, will last 15 minutes.

For the MMA athletes I train, tapering is a crucial piece of the programming puzzle. Overtraining is common in this sport, so we need to keep a close eye on overall workload and make sure we taper properly. MMA competitors need to be well versed in many disciplines. Consequently, a training program may include days with up to three sessions! For example, an athlete might do conditioning work at 7:00 am, wrestling at 11:00 am and pad work at 7:00 pm.

When creating MMA strength training programs, I include tapering to avoid overtraining and reduce injuries. A template would look like this:

  • Outside of camp (off-season): strength train three times per week.
  • In camp (8 weeks out from a fight): strength train two times per week.

During the “outside of camp” phase, we focus on imbalances, injury prevention and maximum development of clients’ strength base. This is when we “lay our foundation,” if you will, with more traditional strength training. You do not want to work on developing an athlete’s endurance, conditioning and technique if his or her strength base is not adequate.

In camp, we focus more on muscle endurance, power development and functional training. I incorporate more metabolic work and high-intensity interval training (HIIT) to help athletes peak.

The final phase of the taper occurs in the last week of training. At this time MMA athletes typically go through a dramatic weight cut (15 pounds or more) so we lighten the workload. On the martial arts side of training, they work on a lot of technique and drilling. On the strength and conditioning side, they usually do just one or two sprints on the treadmill to help with the weight cut. These sprints will vary depending on the athlete, but they are always intervals. For example, 30 seconds on and 30 seconds off—a 1:1 work-to-rest ratio—could repeat for 15 rounds, with an 8% incline and a speed of around 10 miles per hour.

In the sport of MMA, it is imperative to follow a well-designed periodized program to get to the next level in your career.

Doug Balzarini, CSCS, MMA-CC

ACE-Certified Personal Trainer and

Owner, DB Strength

San Diego, California

Tapering the workload prior to competition is important to help athletes express their top physical capacity and to ensure that they achieve their performance goals. Exposure to a continuously high volume of training breaks down body and mind. The best coaches use training cycles in which athletes are regularly challenged to work harder, so that when recovery is provided, the athletes are stronger in recovery than they were before. This creates a platform for ongoing improvement and peak performance.

As said, heavy training breaks down the body, but during daily recovery a period of adaptation occurs when small improvements are achieved each week. Through a training cycle, the volume and intensity increase each week, pushing the weekly adaptation to a new level. If tapering or offloading weeks are not implemented into training cycles, fatigue and overtraining can occur and athletes will not continue to progress physically. As the competition date gets closer, a good coach will lower the training volume so that the body can begin the healing process to ensure that athletes are, in fact, at their physical best right before competition.

Tapering workouts before a competition. Every tapering program is designed with the specific needs of the athlete and the competitive event in mind. There are three different types of tapering strategies: minor, moderate and major. Minor tapers are for athletes training 6–15 hours per week to prepare for smaller events. In a minor taper, coaches use a 1- to 5-day recovery phase leading up to the event. This offloading concept is also useful for long-term fitness enthusiasts who train year-round without any scheduled sport objective. Moderate tapers last anywhere from 5 to 14 days before an event and are used when good performances are required. Finally, major tapers are used before the biggest competition of the year. It appears that a major tapering period lasting 21–28 days can yield marked improvements in endurance performance, whereas tapering periods lasting up to 42 days are less effective (McNeely & Sandler 2007).

From a workload perspective, a taper consists of a decrease in training volume along with an increase in intensity to simulate race pace. While modifying training volume, be sure not to allow a drastic drop in training frequency. Professional coaches maintain a consistent number of training days per week but reduce volume by cutting training time in each workout. As athletes get deeper into the taper period, coaches increase the intensity (up to 90% of VO2max) while further decreasing volume (McNeely & Sandler 2007).

Remember that each athlete should be trained as an individual and will respond differently to the various tapering methods. The best coaches document how athletes are feeling during tapering to determine how their bodies are responding to the alterations in training. Each experience with tapering for performance exposes more information about how an athlete responds to this recovery phase, giving the coach an insight into future tapering plans. An individualized and refined tapering plan delivers the best performances.

Peter Twist, MSc

President, Twist Conditioning Inc.

Former NHL Conditioning Coach

North Vancouver, British Columbia