Peaking for the best performance – what’s the latest research say?

The Introduction

peakingThe taper is a crucial element in preparing for a major event. The months or years of preparation can all be undone if we don’t get it right on the day. Part art, part experience and part science, it remains one of the unknown frontiers of athlete preparation and a very individual matter. A recent paper focused on tapering was written for a special issue of the Journal of Sports Sciences that focused on athlete preparation for Vancouver 2010 Winter and London 2012 Summer Olympic Games. The authors are highly experienced sport scientists from the UK, Australia and Spain. Their findings are crucial for any masters athlete wanting to improve.

The Paper Outcomes

The major questions faced by coaches and athletes during taper are how to manipulate training frequency, intensity and duration to enhance and maximize performance on the day of competition. The different types of taper can be summarized as:

  1. linear taper – gradual but same % drop in volume per day
  2. slow decay taper – initial slow and consistent drop in volume
  3. fast decay taper – initial quick drop then consistent drop in volume
  4. step taper – quick drop and maintained volume

Most researchers suggest that the fast decay tapering method is the best to optimize performance.  Over 14-21 days, training load drops off quickly, then more slowly as we get closer to the event. The question then becomes how to drop training load – how do we drop frequency, intensity or duration. Here is what the paper suggests:

  1. Frequency – maintain normal training or reduce minimally by 20% at most.
  2. Intensity – maintaining training intensity appears the absolute key to a successful taper.
  3. Duration – this is where the greatest reduction in training load can occur.
  4. Overall training load – drop 40-60%

The So What?

The key to a successful taper appears to be a quick and then slower reduction in training duration and overall volume. Frequency of training can be dropped slightly but intensity must be maintained right up to competition day.  Peaking for masters athletes is discussed at length in chapter 10 of The Masters Athlete. The chapter highlights the individual nature of tapers.

Pyne, D, Mujika, I., and Reilly, T. (2009). Peaking for optimal performance: Research limitations and future directions. Journal of Sports Sciences. 27(3):195-202.