Frank Horwill



  • These articles were first published many year's ago and whilst some are as relevant today as they were when new, many are now mostly of historical interest as modern research and coaching methods have superseded them.

The tapering and rest revolution

by Frank Horwill

Athletes and coaches are beginning to realise that reducing the training load before a major race pays dividends. They are also realising that in the monthly training cycle it pays to have an "easy" week. But, just how best to do this is a matter of much debate. Here are some of the options that have been put forward:-

1. A day of complete rest before a race.

2. Two days complete rest before competition.

3. Reducing the training load by half the week before a major event.

4. Reducing the training load by two-thirds a week beforehand.

5. Reducing the work-rate by a third.

6. Maintaining the mileage but reducing the intensity for a week.

7. Reducing the mileage but increasing the intensity.

8. In a monthly training cycle, having a severe week, followed by a light one, then a moderate one to be followed by a week of active rest (Jogging, walking, swimming, cycling or any other sport.)

Now, all of these have one thing in common: there is a period of respite. But, the nagging question which athletes and coaches ask themselves is this: how much fitness is lost by following any one of these procedures? Well, there are some scientific studies which give astounding answers. Some of them were done forty years ago and few believed them. Now, more recent research has confirmed them as being sound. They are:-

1. A well-trained athlete can go five whole days without training before endurance declines. (Costill)

2. If mileage is reduced by a third, the same fitness level can be maintained for three months. (Dyson).

3. Twenty-one individuals who trained severely six days a week consisting of three days of running and three days of cycling (this involved 6x5 minute repetitions at close to maximum effort with two minutes rest), were split into two groups. One group reduced exercise frequency to four sessions a week (two of running for 35 minutes at moderate effort, two of cycling). The other group reduced their workouts drastically to just two sessions a week (one of cycling, one of running.) The amazing revelation was that in spite of these reductions, one of two-thirds and the other one-third, both groups maintained their former fitness achieved on six days a week training, for a further staggering four months: (University of Illinois at Chicago, 1981.)

4. While reduction of mileage and frequency produced no problems in the Illinois trials, reductions in intensity did lead to a loss of fitness. It was found that intensity was the key preserver of fitness.

5. A group of swimmers doing 10k volume sessions a day had their load cut back by 68 per cent down to 3,200 yards per day, for 15 days. During the course of this reduction period, the swimmers’ muscular power soared by 25 per cent, their levels of blood lactate while swimming at rapid speeds reduced, and, what matters most, their performances improved by nearly 4 per cent. One problem in this piece of experimentation was that the swimmers felt too fit and tended to start races too fast. (Gostill)

6. A group of swimmers reduced their training-load to a third and were monitored over a four-week period. Blood lactate levels dropped for eighteen days, then rose thereafter. Similarly, performances improved for eighteen days, but then declined. The conclusion drawn from this research was that the maximum period of tapering at this level (Two-thirds) should not exceed eighteen days. After this period the "milking" out of benefits declined. (Northern Colorado University).

7. A consensus of opinion is now emerging as to what is the best tapering before a major event. A runner who normally does 60 miles a week could cut back to 20 miles for up to eighteen days before a race.

8. Doubts about the above tapering procedures can be dispelled by an important physiological fact: the benefits of a work-out usually don’t show up until 14 days have elapsed since the session. Therefore, what is the point of training strenuously right up to competition time? On the same line as this thinking, it takes 12 weeks of training at not less than 35 minutes a day, five days a week, to bring about major physiological changes for the better in the human body, and thirty-six weeks from scratch to reach peak fitness.

9. The most recent tapering news is even more sensational. It is the 90 per cent reduction in tapering! Three groups of runners were asked to follow different tapering procedures as follows:

- Reduce training by 90 per cent

- Reduce training by two-thirds

- Do no training at all during the tapering period of one week.

The first group were asked to do all of their training (10 per cent of normal), by running fast 500 metre intervals at 1,500m pace, in this case they ran 5 x 500m on the first day, 4 x 500 on the second, 3 x 500 on the third, etc. On the seventh day they underwent performance tests, having rested completely the day before. Endurance soared by 22 per cent in this group, in the two-thirds reduction group, endurance improved by only 6 per cent, and the total rest group, there was no improvement. It was found that the first group stockpiled more glycogen in their legs, and key energy-producing enzymes advanced dramatically. Also, this group had much higher blood volumes, compared to runners using the more conventional one or two days off before a race. High blood volume is a major asset, because it permits more red fluid to pour towards the leg muscles during strenuous exercise, bringing along surges of oxygen and fuel. It appears that this increased blood flow was induced by the fast intervals. Another advantageous factor for the fast interval group was that the speed involved was at near race pace which prepared them for the precise neuro-muscular requirements needed in the race. This also has psychological implications, "I’ve been doing this all week, it seems comfortable." (Duncan McDougall, McMaster University in Ontario, Canada.)

10. Eight experienced runners, which included two females, who had been averaging about 40 miles a week, reduced their training to 15 per cent (6 miles) all of it interval training for a week, plus the usual warm up and cool down. The repetitions were all done at 5k pace in decreasing amounts during the week, i.e. 1st day – 8 x 400, with pulse recovery of 105 beats per minute.

11. One hundred Boston Marathon participants were examined just before they raced, all were found to have microscopic muscle cell damage. They weren’t injured as such. After the marathon, the cell damage was aggravated. This is known as muscle trauma, and it takes a month to repair. There is little point entering a marathon with reduced muscular efficiency. The exact taper for a marathon hasn’t been scientifically tested, but logically it looks like:

1st week – 75% of the normal training load,

2nd week – 50%

3rd week – 30%

4th week – 15%

The final week of the taper (the 15% one) should see work equally divided between 5k pace intervals and marathon pace runs, with the former being reduced in number each day. There is no reduction in the intensity of workouts throughout this month lead-up, it is the volume that decreases. (Costill)

12. Tapering in training is also a controversial subject. There are two schools of thought:

- The weekly taper

- The monthly taper.

In the first, this routine is suggested: Day 1 – severe, Day 2 – Active Rest, Day 3 – Moderate, Day 4 – light, Day 5 – Severe, Day 6 – Active Rest, Day 7 – Moderate. The second method works as follows: 1st week – Severe, 2nd week – Active rest, 3rd week – moderate, 4th week – light. The first two weeks of this cycle are very similar to the principles of crash training, i.e. double training load, followed by an equal number of recuperation days. Where do the Kenyans fit into this picture? They appear to train severely every day, doesn’t this make all this tapering business a load of nonsense? Well, Kenyans experience running to school from childhood and are better adapted to long spells of hard training, but they take a month off every year. However, it is possible that they might even get better with tapering, heaven forbid. Lets hope they are too busy running to read the results of physiological research conducted by some of the world’s greatest ever work-physiologists.

N.B. It is suggested that the outlined tapering procedures are only considered for major events, certainly not more than one a month.