Increased Training Just Before Taper Can Boost Performance

IF YOU COULD  read the training logs of many top marathoners, you might be surprised by how hard they’re training when many recreational runners have started tapering. It’s not uncommon for elite marathoners’ training to peak in terms of mileage and intensity just a couple of weeks before race day.

This pattern has empirical support from new research on increased training just before tapering, but with a caveat: Make sure you don’t slip from increased training to overly fatigued.

For the study, published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 33 triathletes were divided into two groups. Ten kept doing their normal training, while 23 increased their training (both overall volume and number of repeats in hard workouts) by 30 percent for three weeks. Then all the triathletes started a four-week taper, during which they reduced total volume and duration of hard workouts by 40 percent. Researchers measured the triathletes’ VO2 max and cycling performance before and after the three-week training block, and each week during the taper.

The ten who kept with their normal training followed a predictable pattern of slight increase in fitness after the three-week training block, and then a slight increase in performance after the first week of tapering, followed by mixed results the longer they tapered–results varied by individual, with no clear group patterns emerging.

Things were different for the 23 who dramatically increased their training. Eleven were said to have become “functionally overreached,” or temporarily less capable of peak performance, as measured by the cycling test and self-reported ratings of perceived fatigue. (This state is different from chronic overtraining, which is brought on by a longer period of overload, and can take months to subside.) For the 11 overreached athletes, the gamble of the extra training didn’t pay off–even once they tapered, their performance improvement was less than that of the 10 athletes who had maintained their normal training.

But the 12 who increased their training and not become overreached reached the promised land–once they tapered, their performance increase was greater than that of the athletes who had maintained their normal training. (Let’s call them “the sweet spotters.”) Although they reported greater fatigue during the three-week hard training block, they stayed on the right side of the workout/recovery line. They achieved “supercompensation,” in which their bodies were able to absorb their extra work and, once they were rested, translate it into greater fitness than would have otherwise been possible.

One interesting result was that “once they were rested” wasn’t significantly long. After one week of tapering, “the sweet spotters” saw what the researchers characterized as a small to large increase in performance. They really cashed in after two weeks of tapering–their performance increase was large to very large. After three weeks, it was back to the same as after one week of tapering, and after four weeks, the results were mixed enough to be called “unclear.”

For those inclined to experiment with significantly increased training soon before a key race, one big question stemming from this study is, How do you become of the sweet spotters rather than one of the overreached?

One indication is your health. Of the 33 triathletes, 10 reported an upper respiratory tract infection or gastrointestinal problems during the training period or taper. Seven of them were in the overreached group, compared to two in the sweet spotters and one in the normal training group. Your immune system is temporarily compromised after an especially long or hard workout. Maximizing recovery in the immediate aftermath, including taking in carbohydrates, can lessen that immune system suppression, and potentially lower your risk of an infection.

Even better is to not get to where you’re worried about an infection. The overreached group and the sweet spotters both reported greater feelings of fatigue during their hard training block. But when tested immediately after that block, the overreached group performed worse than before the block, while the sweet spotters performed better.

In practical terms, this performance decline would have been obvious during the training block. Things like times in track repeats or pace per kilometer on long runs at a given effort level should provide data on whether you’re able to meet your workout goals, despite the expected increased fatigue, or whether you’re so tired that your performance is worsening along with your energy level.

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