The Taper

(Coach Peter Kay, last years’s Assault’s Director, posted a fantastic article last year about tapering. With his permission I am republishing it here. This was written 10 days before the Assault on Mount Mitchell last year, so it is appropriate to post it today, 10 days prior to this year’s Assault. Peter is a coach, a musician, and a fellow blogger. He is a good guy and has helped me a great deal.)

What does it mean to “taper?”

It’s crunch time and a lot of us are feeling the pressure of the deadline. The Assaults are 10 days away, and many are beginning to question their training.

The worst thing any cyclist can do right now is “cram.” There is simply NO way to make-up what you haven’t already accomplished this spring. The next 10 days should be “review,” and recovery – not trying to get in those last few hills and mountains or trying to lose those last few pounds.

From here on out… you work with what you have!

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Before any event that a cyclist takes seriously, there should be a period in which volume tapers off so that the body can rest, recover, and rebuild broken-down muscle tissue. Each person is different, so there is no one way to taper. That said, there are certainly a few generalizations that can be made:

1. Most cyclists do best with a 7-10 day Taper. Some people need less time, but almost no one needs more than 10 days (after that, one begins to lose a bit of fitness).

2. Taper refers to “tapering off” which does NOT mean stopping altogether. Similarly, the first few days of the taper should only be moderately easier than usual (or shorter) while the last few days of the taper may feel too easy or short.

3. Decrease volume more than intensity. Short rides with a few hard blasts will keep your body’s metabolism going, the blood flowing, and your muscles used to stress. You want to keep the engine revved up without burning much fuel. At the same time, try to avoid breaking down the muscle fibers too much. Don’t go out and do serious hill reps for an hour – but throwing in a few hills OR a few sprints during a casual spin will help keep the legs loose.

4. By the end, one should feel almost twitchy with excitement and energy – NOT sluggish, lethargic, or “soft.” These are signs that an athlete didn’t taper correctly. If you feel yourself getting tired a few days before the ride – get outside and pedal around a while. It won’t hurt you to change your taper along the way (so long as you don’t burn up your legs).

5. In the last two days, it is generally considered best to take Saturday completely off the bike, ride a short and easy ride on Sunday (45-75 minutes at a recovery pace with no real hard efforts). This is a perfect combination of rest and active recovery that primes the pumps for Monday’s hardest efforts.

If needed (schedule conflicts, etc), you can also swap these two days, riding easy on Saturday and resting on Sunday, although your legs will most likely take far longer to “wake up” on the day of the event.

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Many are headed to the mountains this Saturday, and that’s okay. So long as it’s a shorter ride – less volume – and slightly easier than usual (no need to take risks, bombing the descents… there’s no clock and there’s no prize!).

As I said earlier, a taper could be as many as 10 days, but for some it’s far fewer. The length of time isn’t based on age or experience – although, that does play some role in the process. Instead, it’s more about genetics and lifestyle. A 35 year old, Cat 2 racer with an active and stressful job may actually need longer than a retired man who simply cycles as a hobby. Trial and error is still the best way to find what works for you but within the framework of the guidelines above.

The key is to rest, eat well, and stay hydrated.

-Peter Kay


One response to “The Taper

  • Gerry Patterson

    I honestly have no problems with the taper (my inner couch potato I guess), but I’ve come to realize that many cyclists do, probably because they are so used to training intensely that a few easy days (or even days off) is psychologically unacceptable. They’ve worked wonders for me in big events and I can’t imagine attempting anything worthwhile without them now. Great article.

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