Tapering is a practice used by athletes to gradually reduce training demands before a competition, allowing the body to recover from stress. Different athletes require different tapering periods, and it is a delicate balance between recovery and loss of fitness. Tapering is crucial for athletes to perform at their peak during competitions.
One of the worst mistakes an elite athlete can make is to overtrain. A long-distance runner would never run 26 miles the day before entering the Boston Marathon, and a weightlifter in the Olympics would never lift world record weights the night before the competition began. When undergoing an intensive training regimen for an upcoming competition, the lifter and their coach often begin a practice called tapering several days or even weeks before the event. Tapering involves gradually reducing an athlete’s training demands in order to allow his body to recover from the stress.
Tapering is not only about reducing the strain on an athlete’s fatigued muscles, it is also about allowing all of the athlete’s systems to reset after intense training sessions. A sprinter’s fast-twitch nerves and muscles, for example, may need a few days of rest to handle the demands of the upcoming competition. A long-distance runner’s slow-twitch nerves and muscles, however, can take several weeks to fully recover before a race. Different types of athletes require different periods of tapering, as they have used different muscle and nerve groups in competition.
The practice of tapering is a delicate balance between a beneficial recovery period and a potentially harmful loss of fitness. A trainer must be able to assess an athlete’s fitness level after intensive training and calculate an appropriate tapering time. Generally, most athletes begin tapering 3 weeks to 3 days before a competition, depending on the demands of the sport. Sports involving endurance or strength generally require a longer tapering period than sports involving speed or agility. Tapering doesn’t always mean a complete break from training, but it does mean a return to a less intensive regimen.
The ideal tapering period allows the athlete to recover from the stress and fatigue of intensive training, but not to lose competitive fitness. Tapering is a very common practice among runners, who don’t want to be on the starting line of a race with “heavy legs” caused by overtraining. Other athletes want to be at their peak form at the start of the competition. At the elite level of athletic competition, such as the Olympic Games, the difference between first and second place can literally be a matter of properly timed tapering.