Tapering 101: What It Is, How It's Done and Why It Works. Plus: Why Tapering & Detraining Are Not Interchangeable

Tapering is a must for professional athletes before an event like the Olympic games. Many recreational trainees think of more as a necessary evil that should at least be able to replace the dreaded detraining phases... little do they know.
Since the feedback on yesterday's post on detraining tells me that this is a topic of interest for the majority of SuppVersity readers (which it incidentally should be), I thought I'd follow this up with a brief review on tapering, which is often falsely considered as a "not so hardcore" alternative to keeping away from the gym all-together. While detraining means exactly what the word implies "away from training", tapering is usually described as "the training phase characterized by a  reduction of the amount of training that athletes undergo" (Mujik. 2010), which is often timed before the final days leading to a major competition.  In that it is up to the athlete / trainer to pick whether he/she wants to alter the training volume, intensity, and frequency, whether he / she picks a progressive or step taper (Bosquet. 2007).

Beware of the cookie cutters and take responsibility for your training success and failure

If this is not your first visit to the SuppVersity, you should be aware of my take on "cookie-cutter approaches", when it comes to exercise, nutrition and supplementation: They suck! That being said, I will try my best to provide you an overview over the available evidence, so that you can decide on whether or not you will benefit from tapering and what may be the most suitable form for you as an individual. The person to answer above question, specifically the latter part of it, namely "which one is best for me?" will therefore be no one else than you!

"Ok, which methods of tapering are there and which one is best for me?"

That tapering is a viable strategy to increase exercise performance is indisputable and has in fact been shown for various types of sports which range from running, over swimming and cycling up to triathlon. Tapering (or similar protocols) is likewise common practice in almost all team sports activities, such as football, soccer, basketball etc. In view of the tight on-season schedule of team sport athletes, these tapering periods are yet not part of the day-to-day business. The basic idea behind a taper is, as Bosquet et al. aptly put it, ...
"[to] maximize the decrease in accumulated fatigue while retaining or further enhancing physical fitness, thus leading to peak performance." (my emphases in Bosquet. 2007)
Contrary to a detraining period, of which we have learned yesterday, that it is supposed to maintain / increase the long-term output of your training regimen. Tapering aims at acute peak performance and is therefore not a replacement, but a complement to regular detraining periods in your training cycles.

Intensity , volume, frequency - the common set-screws for tapering

I've mentioned the three main parameters athletes and trainers will be modulating, when they taper in the introduction, already (intensity , volume and frequency), and while there is an overall scientific consensus that all of them can be beneficial, the extend to which each of this is supposed to be reduced is still highly debated:
    Ronnie Coleman is just one of the pros who trained with crazily high volume and weights. If like to train similar, tapering alone won't cut it. Detraining is a must if you want to keep the anabolic response to workouts like these intact (read more)
  • intensity reductions are interestingly less common than you would think, in a previous study I wrote about, here at the SuppVersity a taper with a very low volume, but higher intensity did yield beneficial results (read more)
  • volume reductions range from ~10%-85% of the original training volume and are the "standard" set screw during a taper; oftentimes reductions in volume are yet accompanied by other twists, like a higher training frequency, or heavier weights / training intensity for special purposes
  • frequency reductions are particularly indicated for people who train more than three times a week, everyone else would probably be better advised to reduce the overall training volume by making each of the sessions shorter (remember: tapering is a training strategy that's mostly employed by serious, but not necessary "professional" athletes, and those people don't train just 2 times per week ;-)
Additionally the length of the taper, which is usually around two weeks will obviously be a confounding factor of the degree of intensity, volume or frequency reductions that will be necessary to elicit the desired performance improvements. In that, tapering regimen as short as 7 days have been shown to increase 40km time trial performance in trained cyclist via its beneficial effects on cytochrome oxidase expression and succinate dehydrogenase levels in the type I muscle fibers (Neary. 2003).

More tapering does not yield more benefits - there is, as usual, a happy medium

Mujika et al., on the other hand, have shown that an extended taper of four vs. just three weeks yielded an additional increase in performance gains. During a 6-week taper, however, the "peak" increase of +3% that occurred after four weeks of tapering could not be sutstained (Mujika. 1996).
Figure 1: Effect sizes calculated based on 27 studies; green bars indicate stat. significant and "optimal" strategies, orange bars indicate likewise significant or borderline significant alternatives, blue bars indicate non-significant effects and the red bars should tell you that you better keep away from messing with these parameters (based on Bosquet. 2007)
If you take a look at the effect sizes Bosquet et al. calculated in one of the few, if not the only large scale meta-analysis (including 27 studies), the "optimal" strategy appears to taper by reducing your training volume by at least 21-40% - better make it 41-60%. Practically speaking, this would mean
  • if you usually do 10 HIIT intervals, you would now do five, 
  • if you usually do two exercises per body part, you will now do one, 
  • if you usually do steady state cardio for 40 minutes you hop of the treadmill after 20min, now
Since the optimal duration appears to be two weeks, an additional and in fact often used tweak to the regular single-step progression would be to drop down by 50%  in the first week and then increase you training volume by 25-50% (of the reduced volume) in week two. If you decided to go for a 50% on-ramp you would thus do 7-8 intervals, 2 exercises for the larger muscle groups, one for the small ones, and cardio for 30 min. Yet despite the fact that this two- or more-step tapering is common practice within the athletic community, it has as of now not been confirmed in peer-reviewed studies that the "ramp" before the peak will produce greater performance increases, than the classic one-step drop (Bosquet. 2007).

What does actually happen during a taper?

Now that we did shed some light on the practical side of things, let's briefly take a parting look at what the research says about the underlying mechanism that's behind the performance increment after a taper. As Bosquet et al. point out in their excellent meta-analysis:
    NaHCO3 loading is less taxing on your digestive tract and is an effective strategy to increase your performance during both high intensity sprints and high volume resistance training. Learn more about NaHCO3 loading for cyclists and it's beneficial effects on "old-school" high volume resistance training. Don't be fooled, though, no dietary supplement will make tapering and detraining obsolete!
  • increased VO2max due to taper-induced hypervolemia and enhanced red cell production and an increase in oxidative enzyme activity
  • reduced  energy cost of exercise is another possible explanation, which has yet not observed in all of the few studies that even tested for it; there are respective reports for swimming and running; according to Houmard et al. the most likely cause of these beneficial adaptations are of biomechanical and neural origin (Houmard. 1994); this hypothesis is also supported by more recent research
  • increased aerobic endurance due to improved contractile and metabolic properties of the muscle fiber, yet probably not due to fiber type transitions; additional increases / supercompensation effects pertaining to the intramuscular glycogen stores may also contribute to the aerobic (and strength) endurance increases
I know you are missing bodybuilding / strength training specific data, right? Well, this is a simple result of the fact that tapering is a typical endurance training thing and imho it is that for two reasons, namely:
    Go back to yesterday's post about the effects of detraining if you are still afraid of losing muscle from taking 1-2 weeks off.
  1. It is unlikely that tapering will yield similar restorative effects on the hypertrophy response to your workouts as they were observed in the detraining study that was in the news, yesterday.
  2. Any sane periodized strength training program does already have built-in "tapering" and "detraining" phases, which are yet rarely labeled as such - think of the "deconditioning" phases in the infamous hypertrophy specific strength training (HST), or the periodic cycling between high volume, medium intensity and high intensity low volume training.
The scarce literature on the effects of "tapering" on resistance training performance does yet suggest that the latter is the preferred strategy in longer phases (>3 weeks), in which your time-schedule simply does not allow you to spend as much time in the gym as usual, as it will preserve lean mass and performance compared to longer phases of detraining (Gibala.1994).

Tapering to bridge time-periods, where you cannot make it to the gym as often

The 2007 study by Izquierdo et al. I discussed in Part VI of the Step By Step Guide to Your to Your Own Training Regimen does confirm the notion that a high intensity, low volume tapering regimen (in and out of the gym in less than 20min) would be the appropriate strategy to maintain performance during periods, in which you cannot muster the time to perform your regular workout routine.

The fact that the researchers also observed that only detraining, yet not tapering increased the IGF-1 levels of the participants, does yet confirm the fact that tapering and detraining are not interchangeable. While the former will give your body time to recuperate, it probably cannot replace detraining the 1-2 week phases of detraining or "strategic deconditioning" which should be an obligatory part of your training regimen.

Bottom line(s): Per definition, the best time to "taper" is before a meet or competition. It could also help you peak before a bodybuilding show or photoshoot, as it will support a more muscular and less "watery" look that often comes with the glucose depleting and muscle damaging high volume (+high intensity) routines.

According to what we know now, 2-3 weeks of tapering appear to yield the most pronounced benefits. In that, it should be obvious that the way you taper will determine the optimal length: A low volume high intensity taper, for example, can also help maintain muscle mass over longer periods of time, whenever your "real life" does not allow you to train as regularly as usual.

Tapering and detraining both have their place in your training regimen, in which "inverse tapering" aka "retraining" may provide a third way to increase your gains (read more)
The best way to use and combine the individual set-screws volume, intensity and frequency has yet to be determined. It is likely to be highly sport specific and will definitely depend on the training regimen you were on before the taper. A 40%-60% reduction in training volume does yet stand out as the common denominator of successful tapering interventions. Concurrent increases in training intensity can make sense especially for strength, yet probably not so much for endurance athletes. Changes in training frequency are less promising. If you do yet train more than 4 times per week or in AM and PM sessions, it would appear prudent to cut volume by simply dropping down to to three workouts per week.

Don't use tapering to replace the obligatory back-off week(s) = detraining. Both the effects, as well as the underlying mechanisms are different. If you switch back between more strength and more hypertrophy oriented periods of strength training, it may make sense to do a high intensity taper after the hypertrophy phases to precondition your body for the strength phase and take 1-2 weeks off (detraining) after the ensuing strength period to return to the gym with an optimal growth response.

  • Bosquet L, Montpetit J, Arvisais D, Mujika I. Effects of tapering on performance: a meta-analysis. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2007 Aug;39(8):1358-65.
  • Gibala MJ, MacDougall JD, Sale DG. The effects of tapering on strength performance in trained athletes. Int J Sports Med. 1994 Nov;15(8):492-7.
  • Hooper SL, Mackinnon LT, Ginn EM. Effects of three tapering techniques on the performance, forces and psychometric measures of competitive swimmers. Eur J Appl Physiol Occup Physiol. 1998 Aug;78(3):258-63.
  • Houmard JA, Costill DL, Mitchell JB, Park SH, Hickner RC, Roemmich JN. Reduced training maintains performance in distance runners. Int J Sports Med. 1990 Feb;11(1):46-52. 
  • Houmard JA. Impact of reduced training on performance in endurance athletes. Sports Med. 1991 Dec;12(6):380-93. Review. 
  • Houmard JA, Hortobágyi T, Johns RA, Bruno NJ, Nute CC, Shinebarger MH, Welborn JW. Effect of short-term training cessation on performance measures in distance runners. Int J Sports Med. 1992 Nov;13(8):572-6.
  • Houmard JA, Scott BK, Justice CL, Chenier TC. The effects of taper on performance in distance runners. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1994 May;26(5):624-31.
  • Izquierdo M, Ibañez J, González-Badillo JJ, Ratamess NA, Kraemer WJ, Häkkinen K, Bonnabau H, Granados C, French DN, Gorostiaga EM. Detraining and tapering effects on hormonal responses and strength performance. J Strength Cond Res. 2007 Aug;21(3):768-75.
  • Mujika I, Busso T, Lacoste L, Barale F, Geyssant A, Chatard JC. Modeled responses to training and taper in competitive swimmers. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1996 Feb;28(2):251-8.
  • Mujika I. The influence of training characteristics and tapering on the adaptation in highly trained individuals: a review. Int J Sports Med. 1998.
  • Mujika I. Intense training: the key to optimal performance before and during the taper. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2010 Oct;20 Suppl 2:24-31.
  • Neary JP, Martin TP, Quinney HA. Effects of taper on endurance cycling capacity and single muscle fiber properties. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2003 Nov;35(11):1875-81.
  • Thomas L, Busso T. A theoretical study of taper characteristics to optimize performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2005 Sep;37(9):1615-21.
Disclaimer:The information provided on this website is for informational purposes only. It is by no means intended as professional medical advice. Do not use any of the agents or freely available dietary supplements mentioned on this website without further consultation with your medical practitioner.