What is a taper?
Taper: a reduction in training volume and intensity to prepare an athlete to best express their fitness for a test or competition
Taper Length Considerations
(1) Athlete Training Age
The longer the athlete has been training, the more “sticky” their fitness.
A novice will make quick gains, but these physiological changes will also be lost relatively quickly in the event that that they dramatically reduce volume or intensity.
A veteran athlete on a quest to find the tiny adaptations left (diminishing returns) will retain their fitness qualities for longer, and therefore should be given a longer taper.
In addition, an athlete with a lower chorological age (Teen) will flush accumulated fatigued quicker than an athlete with a higher chronological age (Masters), and therefore doesn’t need as extensive of a taper.
(2) Are the athlete’s skills consistent, efficient and refined?
This factor will be highly correlated with athlete training age, as an athlete who has put years of work into honing their craft is likely to have economical “sport” movements.
However, there are notable exceptions…
For example, it is possible to have an “athletic,” highly-skilled teen athlete who is a good-mover, but they lack robust metabolic pathways (“engine”).
On the other hand, we could have a Masters athlete who has been around sports their whole life and has a long training history plus well-developed physiological qualities, but losses the “feeling” of high-skill movements after a week or two not touching a skill.
In both cases, the athlete should wait longer to taper and should keep “weakness” training in their program (in minimally fatiguing formats) as their game day approaches.
(3) Has volume has to been sufficiently built?
There are multiple ways to think about “base-building,” from the aerobic system to absolute strength to structural balance.
But the principle is that high-level performance can only be supported if the athlete has put in the work on the systems that support that high-level performance.
Case in point: “Lactic work” isn’t sustainable, and the athlete will only adapt if they have the A) strength to express power, and the B) aerobic qualities to bail the system out.
You can only sharpen fitness that is already exists.
But if you’re working with an athlete who has (metaphorically) massive supporting structures (from years of developing the proper systems to one day express her true capacity) then you can layer on elite performance via a more-extensive taper.
(4) What is the competition’s programming bias?
CrossFit is the only sport where you sign up before you know what the rules entail.
It could be a local comp where -to encourage mass participation- there are no muscle-ups, handstands or heavy barbells.
Or it could be a live-streamed event, where the organizers are incentivized by views, and therefore novelty implements and max lifts are favorized.
Or maybe the competition runs 12 heats of athletes so no event can be longer than 8 minutes.
The Takeaway: Do your homework to find out what the bias might be, and once you do, pull out the supportive training for those qualities last.
Step #1: Pull Out Volume.
Volume is usually the first quality built in the off-season, and also the first thing reduced in the taper process, even for most endurance athletes.
This is because a high training volume with contribute the most to fatigue levels.
The most important thing for an athlete as they go to compete is the ability to execute the work at game day intensity (density, pace, etc).
If the ability to express intensity is held in the highest regard, it means that other qualities (like volume) need to take a back seat, for now.
Step #2: Reduce the Load.
Remember earlier when I said the longer an athlete has been training the more “sticky” their fitness?
Well, strength qualities are also really sticky.
So it’s no coincidence that strength takes a long time to develop and typically appears in athletes who have put in their reps.
While speed strength (ie. Snatch and Clean & Jerk) is most frequently tested in CrossFit competitions, it’s often a small percentage of the total number of events.
My recommendation is to wait fairly long to limit the athlete’s loading in the Olympic Lifts (first reducing the volume of building & working sets), but within a week or two of competing back them off to touches of percentage work.
Step #3: Limit Intensity.
This is the last step because intensity is the most important quality for success in the Sport of Fitness.
When limiting intensity, I like to think about having the athlete Go Fast But Not Hard.
What does this mean?
Replicate game day cycle speed and density without “digging” into the nervous system.
Athletes will know what I mean by “dig” …tapping into an emotional & hormonal place that is extremely expensive.
…expensive enough to put you into a debt that you won’t get out of before you compete.
How do you go fast but not hard?
I use “Stingers” which -full disclosure- I stole from Kyle Ruth.
The idea behind a Stinger is that it replicates a competition’s movement selection and cycle speeds in a way that becomes fatiguing, but the work is short enough to prevent pace degradation and the need to “dig.”
Here’s an example that I recently gave to one of my 1-on-1 coaching clients…
C. For Time @ High Effort
Short and sweet. It got challenging for him to maintain cycle speed, but it didn’t leave him trashed or rolling on the floor.
Heart rate was spiked, legs were burning, but two minutes later he could hold a conversation with his training partner.
“What do I do with all my extra time?”
Even humans beings who aren’t pre-disposed to being anxiety-prone individuals will struggle with bouts of anxiousness as their training comes to a close and they find they have several extra hours in their day.
An idle athlete is an anxious athlete.
• Complete the Anxious Athlete Solution Workbook.
• Watch Part 1 of our Game Day Guide on Managing Anxiety & Nerves.
The takeaway -in my opinion- is having pre-prepared ways to fill your time.
Get creative with it, like Tim Paulson, but don’t do anything too far from your normal routine or lifestyle, which could be physical or cognitively demanding.