Physiology of the Taper in Rowing - Peaking for Performance

As the 2006 World Rowing Championships draw close crews must be relishing the tapering of their training which should by now be just around the corner, if it has not already begun. Tapering has long been an important component of training in the final days leading up to a major competition. By backing off the volume, and increasing the intensity, athletes "peak" for their best performance of the year - really an extended recovery from hard training and sharpening of physical and mental skills.

This general post includes a number of resources for you to examine so that you can reflect on your own version of the taper. Look through them and consider: do I taper for long enough? (some suggest that we taper for as long as 28 days!), do I reduce training volume enough? (50% or more), have I considered the psychological aspects?

Tapering Examples - the Good and the Bad

There are many resources on the 'net that discuss tapering. Perhaps one of the best describing the more poetic side comes from the Harvard Magazine, on Harry Parker and "The Taper"

"...Many coaches can't taper. They get nervous before a race and wear the crew out practicing racing starts. It's a rare talent.

In the days just before a race, athletes generally reduce their workouts to build energy for competition: this process is called "tapering." Carie Graves describes Parker as "a master of the taper. I've never had anyone get me ready for a race the way he did. When you got to the starting line you were God-you were omnipotent. I felt that way in '76: like the perfect human being. It's the best. Many coaches can't taper. They get nervous before a race and wear the crew out practicing racing starts. It's a rare talent."

Knauth recalls the energy that would intensify before the Yale race: "Because of the taper, you just want to grab an oar….People get so aggressive, they want to smash chairs, they start wrestling with each other. Then Harry says, `No, no, no-save it.' When you get to the starting line you just want to explode at the start to get it out of your system. The maniacal desire to break something really helps when you're trying to win a close race."

Interestingly, there is a down side to tapering for some athletes. See discuss the "taper blues" and common symptoms experienced in the taper phase of training. I have heard some coaches describe their athletes as having too much energy sometimes leading to conflict - perhaps this is a different perspective.

General Resources

For more specific discussions of the science and applications to training consider taking a few minutes to look at these resources:

English Institute of Sport article on tapering has a review on events in the "mystery zone" - sports with duration about 1-5 minutes that are neither purely aerobic nor purely anaerobic. In it they specifically mention rowing:

"The US rowing coach outlined a typical taper for his athletes. Most of their tapering involves three weeks of high intensity training, decreasing volume by up to 40%, with intensity set at 95% to 105% of race pace. Many variations of taper are utilized for peaking in the mystery zone, and no consensus was reached between any of the experts."

The Concept II Indoor Training guide has a section on tapering noting it should last 7-10 days and even give an outline of how to taper your training.

Some Scientific Publications

Physiological Changes Associated with the Pre-Event Taper in Athlete, Mujika et al. Sports Medicine, Volume 34, Number 13, 2004, pp. 891-927(37)

Reviews physiological, neuromuscular and psychological aspects of tapering, describing some of the changes although not the specific types of taper.

A Theoretical Study of Taper Characteristics to Optimize Performance, THOMAS et al. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 37(9):1615-1621, September 2005.

This was a modeling exercise based on training data from other studies. It did suggest that the taper is best when preceded by an overload period. IT also suggests that a much longer taper period is required than typically used - indeed, they suggest 28 days!

Effects of three tapering techniques on the performance, forces and psychometric measures of competitive swimmers by Hooper et al. European Journal of Applied Physiology, Volume 78, Number 3 July 1998

Interestingly this study did not find a better method amongst three common types of taper used by swimmer but it did report that one week was not enough time for a proper taper.

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