Fine tuning Mikel Astarloza in the Tour the France (Photo: Iñigo Mujika)

Fine tuning Mikel Astarloza in the Tour the France (Photo: Iñigo Mujika)

Here’s another interview that I did a few weeks ago for a cycling magazine. Most of the contents were never published in the final article, so…

Let’s presume we’re aiming at a sportive rider who’s pretty serious about their training. Their goal event is 150km long and they’ve been training regularly for about 6-10hrs a week. Broadly speaking, how long should they taper for to be at their peak come race day?

As a general rule, research has shown that optimal tapering duration for cycle racing ranges between 8 and 14 days. However, we all know that general rules do not necessarily apply to individual athletes, who should adapt taper duration to their individual recovery-fitness profile and their level of accumulated fatigue: some cyclists recover faster than others, and they would need a shorter taper; some lose fitness faster than others, and they would need to train enough during the taper to avoid losing adaptation (i.e. detraining); some may have a more pronounced residual fatigue from their intensive training and/or other stressful lifestyle factors, and they may require a longer taper or a more pronounced reduction of their training load in the days prior to the race.

How does the volume and intensity of training change when tapering?

Training intensity (i.e. how hard we train) is a key factor to retain or further increase fitness adaptations during the taper, so the training load (i.e. the combination of training volume and training intensity) should not be reduced at the expense of intensity. The implication of course is that training volume (i.e. training time or distance) must decline during the taper, by reducing either the duration or the frequency of the training sessions. In simple words, cyclists should train less in quantity but maintain the quality.

How should tapering differ for different durations and intensities of event? For example a 7-day Haute Route, a three-day tour, a one-day sportive, a 1-hour crit and a track sprint?

I believe it is not event duration and intensity that should determine the optimal tapering strategy, but each athlete’s individual adaptation profile. Nevertheless, cycling is special in the sense that competition may be a one-off event, or a tour lasting up to three weeks. In my experience, tapering for a one-off event or an event lasting up to 4-5 days is not very different. However, tapering for a longer tour may require a somewhat different strategy, in which the rider may not need to be super sharp from the outset, but generally recovered and in possession of the biological resources to perform and recover day in, day out.

Does optimum tapering differ from person to person? Is there some trial and error involved, or are there hard and fast rules?

There are some general rules that us sport scientists have been able to infer from the available research and the accumulated experience of elite coaches and athletes, but as I mentioned above every athlete is different and may respond differently to both intensive training and tapering. Some trial and error is thus inevitable, but the general rules based on sound scientific principles may be a good starting point to ensure that we hit more often than we miss, even if some fine tuning is subsequently required to optimize the taper for an individual athlete.

Will pros taper for the Tour de France, or is the Tour too long to be tapered for?

That is a good question. If one looks at the available sport science literature, there is a complete lack of information on how professional riders actually train. And there’s absolutely nothing about their final training and peaking approach for a three-week Grand Tour. As I mentioned before, in my limited experience working with Euskaltel Euskadi professional riders, I feel it is less important for a rider to be at his best for such a long and grueling competition, than it is to be fresh and well recovered after months of specific preparation.

Are there physical signs that your taper’s going well –resting heart rate, your weight…?

The taper is known to induce hematological, hormonal, biochemical, neuromuscular, immunological and psychological adaptations. However, the practical value of such markers may be limited on a day-to-day basis, especially for athletes with limited access to sport science. As I mention in my book “Tapering and Peaking for Optimal Performance”, there are two sport specific, noninvasive, relatively simple and quite inexpensive tools that can provide the most valuable information on an athlete’s adaptation to the taper: one is called stopwatch and the other one verbal communication.

How do nutritional considerations change during a taper?

Because the training load is reduced during the taper, an athlete expends less energy, and their energy intake (i.e. how much they eat) should be reduced accordingly. The last thing we want in the days leading up to the most important competitions is an athlete that’s gaining weight and getting fat! On the other hand, we know that the taper does not modify the contribution to energy provision coming from carbohydrates and fat, so the actual composition of the diet needs not change (unless of course a rider is implementing a “Scandinavian dissociated diet” approach). My usual recommendation to athletes for the taper period is to put the same foods on their plates, but to use a smaller plate!

With emerging technologies and more refinement of power meters, where do you see the future of tapering?

I believe technological tools such as power meters can contribute to our knowledge on tapering and its performance consequences, but what we really need is to gain some insight into the actual peaking strategies used by the best riders in the professional peloton. How do they peak for a day event? How do they prepare for a one-week tour? What is their approach for a three-week Grand Tour? Are they following the available evidence based recommendations? That kind of information would really add to our knowledge on tapering and peaking strategies used by the best, and we could then design studies to try to further understand athletes’ adaptive mechanisms and optimize those strategies.

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