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Tapering with WKO+
By Matt Fitzgerald and Stephen McGregor, PhD
Tapering for running events, especially longer races such as marathons, is tricky. TrainingPeaks WKO+ can take a lot of the guesswork out of the process of planning and executing the perfect taper. In this article I will explain how.
It’s easy enough to execute a merely adequate taper—one that sets you up to race no worse than you can reasonably expect given your fitness level. This requires only that you train lightly for a few days before your race. But executing an optimal taper—one that sets you up for the best race that you can possibly have given your fitness level—is harder. This requires that find just the right balance among several key variables, including the duration of the taper, the rate of training workload reduction, the absolute magnitude of training workload reduction, and the amount and types of high-intensity running that are performed within the taper.
Even the optimal taper would be easy enough to execute if every runner were the same. In this case, you would need only learn and apply the one-size-fits-all formula. But each runner is unique, so while you can rely on general principles of effective tapering to get you close to the optimal tapering protocol for you, the rest is up to you.
So what are the general principles of effective tapering? First, the duration of the taper should be proportionate to your training volume. If you’re a 20-miles-a-week runner training for a 5K, a three-day taper will suffice. If you’re a 100-miles-a-week runner training for a marathon, a three-week taper will be more suitable. A two-week taper is optimal for most competitive runners training for longer races.
Volume should be reduced at a gradual, steady rate throughout the taper, although each run need not be shorter than the previous. For example, in a two-week taper, the first week’s mileage should be 30 to 40 percent less than the preceding week’s, and the second week’s mileage should be roughly 30 to 40 percent less than the first week’s. But if you normally do a long run on Sunday, you should still do a longer Sunday run within the taper; however, the duration of this run should also be significantly reduced compared to preceding weeks.
Do not reduce your running volume by training less frequently. Continue to train with your normal frequency and reduce the duration of each run.
It is important to continue doing high-intensity running during your taper. The purpose of tapering is not only to regenerate your body but also to prime your neuromuscular system for racing, and it’s fast running that does the priming. While your volume of high-intensity training should also be reduced during a taper, don’t cut it quite as much as you cut your overall volume. In other words, cut out more slow stuff than fast stuff.
So how can WKO+ help you taper more effectively? First, the Performance Management Chart can quantify your tapering goals. Your first goal is to elevate your chronic training load (CTL) or “fitness” to its highest level when the taper begins. That’s simply a matter of gradually increasing your training load over the course of the training cycle until it peaks at taper time. Your second goal is to elevate your training stress balance (TSB) or “form” to a level of +10-20 on the day of your race.
As a general rule, the longer your race is, the higher you want your race-day TSB to be. At the same time, the higher your fitness level is, the lower you want your race-day TSB to be. So a highly fit runner peaking for a 10K would probably want a race-day TSB of 10, while a low-mileage first-time marathon runner would want a race-day TSB of 20.
The trick, then, is to reduce your training load just enough, and just long enough, to raise your TSB from its level at the time your taper begins (when it is almost certain to be negative) to the optimal level of +10-20 on race day. You will lose a bit of fitness (i.e. your CTL will decrease slightly), but this loss will be more than compensated for by the gain in form.
So now, how do you go about planning a taper that hits this target? It’s a fairly simple procedure, although it takes a little time. Open WKO+, go to the Performance Management Chart, and customize the date range to extend through the date of your race. Now go to the calendar view and schedule the workouts that you plan to do through the tapering period. The most effective way to do this is to copy and paste similar workouts that you’ve done in the past—this will ensure that you have an accurate TSS for each.
After filling in the schedule, go back to the PMC and see what your TSB is projected to be on race day. If it’s where you want it, keep your schedule as it is and replace the planned workouts one by one with real training data as you progress through the taper. If your projected TSB on race day is too high or too low, go back to the calendar and tweak the workouts to either add or subtract TSS, as necessary, until you get it right.
Bear in mind that each runner is unique, so there’s no guarantee that using this modeling method will yield your best possible race result. To begin with, the +10-20 TSB range is fairly broad. You might have to experiment a bit to find out whether your ideal level of freshness is at the bottom, near the middle or toward the top of this range.
After completing each taper and race, review your Performance Management Chart, assess your race performance, and try to decide what worked and what didn’t work. At this point, toss aside the general principles of effective tapering and generate hypotheses based on the evidence in front of you. If you experience a substandard race performance after completing a conservative taper, try a more drastic one next time. If don’t race as well as you feel you should have done after completing a fairly long taper, try a shorter one next time. As with every other aspect of the sport, getting the most out of tapering requires that you pay close attention to cause and effect in your performance and use your observations to make it more and more custom-fitting as time goes by.
Special thanks to Stephen McGregor, PhD, for technical assistance with this article
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