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Scientific Bases for Precompetition Tapering Strategies


Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: July 2003 - Volume 35 - Issue 7 - pp 1182-1187
APPLIED SCIENCES: Physical Fitness and Performance

MUJIKA, I., and S. PADILLA. Scientific Bases for Precompetition Tapering Strategies. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc., Vol. 35, No. 7, pp. 1182–1187, 2003. The taper is a progressive nonlinear reduction of the training load during a variable period of time, in an attempt to reduce the physiological and psychological stress of daily training and optimize sports performance. The aim of the taper should be to minimize accumulated fatigue without compromising adaptations. This is best achieved by maintaining training intensity, reducing the training volume (up to 60–90%) and slightly reducing training frequency (no more than 20%). The optimal duration of the taper ranges between 4 and more than 28 d. Progressive nonlinear tapers are more beneficial to performance than step tapers. Performance usually improves by about 3% (usual range 0.5–6.0%), due to positive changes in the cardiorespiratory, metabolic, hematological, hormonal, neuromuscular, and psychological status of the athletes.

Athletes, coaches, and sports scientists throughout the world are increasingly pushing the limits of human adaptation and training loads with the aim of achieving top performances at the major competition of their respective sports. In many competitive events, these top performances are often associated with a marked reduction in the training load undertaken by the athletes during the days before the competition. This period of reduced training is generally known as the taper (2,8,17,19,27,28,35,38,44,49,50).

The taper is the final period of training before a major competition and is of paramount importance to an athlete’s performance and the outcome of the event (3,19,28,32,34,37,41,45,46). However, there is no training phase during which coaches are more insecure about the most suitable training strategies for each individual athlete, as they have most often relied almost exclusively on a trial-and-error approach. Indeed, only recently have sports scientists described some of the physiological changes associated with successful tapering programs, and increased their understanding of the relationships between taper-induced performance improvements and concomitant cardiorespiratory (2,19,50), metabolic (2,3,19,38,50), hematological (33,34, 36,44,49), hormonal (3,31–34), neuromuscular (19,22,46), and psychological (13,25,41,45,48) changes.

In an attempt to go beyond descriptive experimental procedures to analyze the consequences of the taper, some investigators have developed a mathematical modeling methodology purported to optimize individual tapering strategies (2,7,26,28,30). Meanwhile, a handful of intervention studies have reported on the physiological and performance consequences of experimental manipulations of taper programs (2,33,34,38,44,50).

A comprehensive and integrated analysis of the available scientific literature on tapering allows us to make a contribution to the optimization of tapering programs. Although we acknowledge that designing training and tapering programs remains an art rather than a science, this paper intends to establish the scientific bases for the precompetition tapering strategies. It is our hope that the following information helps individual athletes, coaches, and sports scientists in their goal of achieving the optimum training mix during the taper, leading to more peak performances at the expected time of the season.

Department of Research and Development, Medical Services, Athletic Club of Bilbao, Basque Country, SPAIN

Address for correspondence: Iñigo Mujika, Ph.D., Mediplan Sport, Obdulio Lopez Uralde 4, 01008 Vitoria-Gasteiz, Basque Country, Spain; E-mail:

Submitted for publication December 2002.

Accepted for publication February 2003.

©2003The American College of Sports Medicine