How to taper for a major sportive or road race - Road Cycling UK

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How to taper for a major sportive or road race

How to ensure you arrive on the start line in top form - and feeling fresh

If you’re targeting a major sportive or road race this summer then, chances are, you’ve been training hard to build your fitness and form as that date, circled on the calendar for month, approaches.

However, while it may be tempting to train hard all the way up to race day, you also need to give your body the time to rest and recover, so you arrive on the start line as fresh – and fast – as possible. A taper is a reduction in training to ensure you are ready to race on the day of a major event.

As a result, the taper is perhaps the most important part of an entire training plan – if you get the taper wrong then all those months of training can be thrown away. While you won’t want to do a full taper for every event you ride, for your most important goals it will help you produce your best performance on the day.

If you’ve set yourself a major goal this season, then  a taper will help you arrive on the start line feeling both in form and fresh (Pic: RideLondon)

The trouble is, tapering isn’t an exact science. The art of a taper is to lose the fatigue you have built up during training, but not to lose any fitness. If you get that balance right then you’ll be fresh, fit and ready to go.

There are generally three different theories when it comes to tapering for an event: linear, step and exponential.

The linear taper is where you gradually and progressively lower your overall training load in the period running into a major event.

The step taper is where you take the training load down to a much lower level than you have been working at in one quick step, and then maintain that lower level for the period of the taper.

The exponential taper is when you reduce your training load significantly initially (but not quite as much as a step taper) and as you get closer to the event you continue to reduce the load, with smaller and smaller reductions as you approach the event.

What method you choose will depend on a lot of factors, and will vary from individual to individual. We’ll take a closer look at that, but first let’s consider the length of the taper.

There are three main tapering methods: linear, step and exponential (Pic: Sportograf)

Length of taper

The length of the taper can also vary, again depending on how you respond as an athlete. As a coach, I generally find riders with a diesel-like engine need a shorter taper than riders with an explosive engine but, as a general rule of thumb, I would recommend a taper of between one and two weeks for the biggest event of your season.

Applying the theory – how to taper

Ok, so that’s the theory, but how do you decide which taper model is right for you, and exactly how long that taper should be?

Your past response to training will give you the best insight into how to plan your taper – and if you’ve kept a training diary then this is another occasion when it will really come in handy. I would advise to go back through your diary and pick out a few days where you felt really good on the bike; then you need to analyse what you did in the two weeks prior to these days.

– How to create and use an effective training diary –

For example, if you have previously felt brilliant after two days off the bike, then a short step taper will probably be best for you. However, if you never feel good after a day off the bike then I would suggest going from either a linear or exponential taper.

One of the best ways to apply both an exponential and linear taper is to gradually reduce the overall volume of your training (the amount of time on the bike) but keep the same intensity. It’s also important to keep doing efforts similar in intensity to those you will do on race day as this will help keep your form sharp.

A training diary will help you plan your taper based on past experiences (Pic: Candu Media)

Generally, it’s your top-end power which is lost first when you stop training, so it’s important to keep working at a high intensity in order to not lose your top-end form during the taper. On the other hand, your base endurance tends to last longer without being trained and, as a result, it’s normally OK to reduce those rides.

During a successful taper, as your reduce your levels of fatigue, you should gradually feel better and better on the bike. This may seem obvious, but if you want to quantify it then if you ride with a power meter you should also see an increase in the watts you’re putting out.

A good taper also requires planning. With a month to go before your event you need to identify which taper method you are going to use. With two weeks to go it’s time to plan the taper. Write it down and stick to it. The key with planning a taper is to work backwards from the event; so, for example, if you’ve decided on a two-week linear taper, you know you need to reduce your training by a given amount each week. Aim for a 20 per cent reduction in time on the bike in week one and another 20 per cent in week two. Again, this requires forward planning to get it right.

The day before your event

While tapering ultimately sees you reduce the amount of time you spend on the bike, I would always recommend riding the day before your event. Often when you don’t ride, the huge effort which follows will come as an even bigger shock to the system. It may seem counter-productive but trust me on this one – it’s always better to give your body an idea of what’s coming up, especially after tapering for a week or two. As a result, I recommend doing a few sprints or 5-10 minutes at tempo just to make sure your body is firing on all cylinders.

Strava and Training Peaks users

Strava and Training Peaks both have a metric which will help you to track a taper, so you can plan and measure the process with more accuracy.

– Understanding Strava: six essential training metrics –

Strava calls its metric ‘Form’, whereas Training Peaks refers to it as ‘TSB’ (Training Stress Balance). Both ‘Form’ and ‘TSB’ aim to give you an idea of how you will feel on any given day day, and the higher the number, the fresher you should feel.

Strava and Training Peaks users can track their form online (Pic: Strava)

These two metrics track the difference between the amount of training you have done in the last week compared to your average training over the last six weeks. If you have a score of zero then your training over the last week has been equal in load to your average for the last six weeks. Every athlete has a sweet spot with regards to the balance between fitness and freshness at which they will perform best.

I would suggest that, once again, you go back and have a look at the days where you’ve felt the best over the last year. Have a look at the ‘Form’ or ‘TSB’ on those days – if all is normal they should all be relatively similar and for most riders they will all between -10 and +10.

Now look again at the training you did running up to those days. This will dictate the type of taper to use and the duration of the taper will be dictated in how long it will take you, using your desired taper method, to get from where your ‘TSB’ or ‘Form’ score is now to where it needs to be on race day.

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