Tapering in Cycling for Peak Performance

Have you ever heard of the expression "All the hay is in the barn" ? To many cyclists and farmers alike it has great meaning: the hard work is over and now it is time to reap the benefits of a job well done. In order to 'peak' cyclists reduce their training load and 'taper down' into peak form. Its not complicated if you consider decreasing your training volume while maintaining your intensity. That's code for adding more recovery days into your training and doing 2 sets of intervals instead of three.


What is a Peak?

A peak is when you are ripping the cranks off the bike and feel like there is no chain while you are pedalling. Physiologically you are making your best power of the year and you feel absolutely fantastic. Mentally you are motivated to dig deep and your mind is fresh, motivated and looking forward to racing. You have more 'matches' to meet all the attacks, climbs and are able to dig deeper than perhaps you ever have (with the power output to show for it). During a peak, you'll get your best results and also set your Strava PR's.

What is a "Taper"?

Dr. Inigo Mujika Ph.D renowned sports physiologist who has dedicated his career to studying tapering, summarizes optimal tapering* as the following:

  • Minimize fatigue AND IMPROVE fitness via increased power output
  • Maintain training intensity
  • Reduce training volume by 60-90%
  • Maintain training frequency at > 80%
  • Individualize taper duration between 4 - 28 days
  • Use progressive, nonlinear tapering designs
  • Expect performance improvements of ~3% (range of 0.5% - 6%)

One to two weeks before your "A race" further fitness gains are unlikely, i.e. the barn is full - you've made the hay. The temptation to train more should be met with firm resistance. Instead, consider a well planned taper in your training plan design. By now you've done countless intervals in all lengths and amounts. You're in the best shape of your life and your ready to do whatever it takes to get that big result at the end of the season. But remember the hay--you put it in the barn and it was difficult. Now its time to rest. Don't stop training, rather gradually decrease you training load by 60-90% each week leading up to your final rendezvous with the podium. Along with the decrease in load, increase your number of rest days.  


Taper Length & Training Plan Design

In my experience the length of your taper will depend on your age and the size of your build (as measured by your CTL). Most cyclists will benefit from a two week taper using Dr. Mujika's guidelines above. Younger athletes in the 20's because they recover faster tend to peak after a 10 day taper. Older cyclists who recover slower need a three week taper. I have also found that multisport athletes because they train so much in 3 different sports benefit from a longer than shorter taper. Here is an example 2 week taper:

As you can see there's not alot of training. I like to begin all tapers with 2 complete days off and remove all acute fatigue and provide the athlete with mental relief from training. By Wednesday the athlete feels pretty good so the rationale is a hard yet reduce duration and repetition of race specific intervals. Endurance on Thursday and rest before the weekend. Saturday could be a shorter race or in this case a half distance simulation ride fro the event in which the taper is designed for the following Saturday.


In the second week truly all the hay is in the barn and rest is best. During the 2nd week of a taper nearly all athletes start to get nervous that they aren't training. Welcome to the taper; second guessing is natural. Rest on this magnitude feel unnatural and sometimes its a little scary. However trust the design and all the extra rest will give your body the time it needs to 'supercompensate' and peak.


Instead of going out and hammering your usual 15 minute climb, consider designing out a 2 week taper like the one above for your training. Taper further down even further the next week. Instead of spending 3 hours in Zone 2, try 90 minutes the first week and just 1 hour the next. The idea is to stimulate the body just enough to remain fit and fast but to allow enough time for your body to adapt, overcompensate and turn you into the supa' fast cyclist that you were born to be!

*Mujika & Padilla, Med. Sci. Sports Exerc. 35:1182-1187, 2003

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About Frank Overton

Frank founded FasCat Coaching in 2002 and has been a full time cycling coach since 2004. His educational background includes a Masters degree in Physiology from North Carolina State University, pre-med from Hampden-Sydney College. Frank raced at a professional level on the road and mountain bike and currently competes as a "masters" level gravel and cyclocrosser. Professionally Frank comes from medical school spinal cord research and molecular biotechnology. However, to this day it is a dream come true for Frank to be able to help cyclists as a coach.

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