This weekend the NCAA indoor championships took place in College Station, Texas. Among a number of great performances, NAU athlete Diego Estrada put up a 13:29 5000m performance for fourth place behind 3 men who were under the previous NCAA record (13:26 to 13:28). For those interested in what it takes to perform well, Diego hits on a few interesting subjects in sport science in his interview.
At 1:25 into the interview, Diego makes mention of never feeling snappy and alive in championship races following taper periods, so he and Coach Eric Heins chose to forgo a reduction in training volume going into the event, which paid dividends as Diego felt “alive” on race day.
This observation begs the question “why would reduced training loads result in an athlete feeling sluggish on race day?”
Though somewhat counter-intuitive, sluggishness and less than ideal performances following a taper are common complaints in high volume trained athletes with a preponderance of slow twitch fibers.
The answer as to why is perhaps rooted in what Dan Pfaff calls Acute Relieving Syndrome. In a long drawn out training cycle of loading, the body gets used to a state of training load and the resultant biochemistry and specific autonomic tone. When the load is reduced, the body begins to adapt by shifting its state toward a different chemistry and a different tone of the nervous system.
Too severe of training volume reductions and subsequent Acute Relieving Syndrome can result in a number of changes that reduce performance capacity including, at the top of the issue, a decrease in blood plasma volume by 5 to 12% in highly trained endurance athletes in very short time frames (Coyle, 1986; Houmard, 1992). This leads to a spiral of negative outcomes including increased maximal and submaximal heart rates, reductions in stroke volumes, and reductions in VO2max (worse in highly trained endurance athletes) demonstrating an overall reduction in aerobic capacity (Coyle, 1984, 1986). Fueling propensity shifts toward a greater demand for carbohydrate, enzymes for lipolysis and oxidative phosphorylation can be reduced, and lactate threshold is reached at lower relative intensities (Londeree, 1997; McCoy, 1994; Moore, 1987)
This biological disarray is undoubtedly less than advantageous to the athlete’s performance. However, utilizing proper reductions in training load can result in a much greater biological upside. Tapering is a broad topic, however, for those who still feel sluggish after an intelligent taper, a utilization of the two-phase taper may be helpful.
In very simple terms, a two-phase taper involves a traditional reduction in training volume, whilst maintaining frequency and intensity (the basics of a good taper), for a number of days to weeks leading into a competition followed by a moderate increase in training load over the last several days prior to competition to take advantage of the benefits of both reduction in load and the physiology the body is used to in high performance situations. In models by Thomas, elite swimmers who moved their training loads from significant reductions (at as low as 32% normal) for the early taper back to somewhat higher levels the final three days resulted in slightly improved performance over a linear taper alone and without detriment (Mujika, 2009).
While this is only one way that offers marginal improvements in performance, at the elite level, marginal is the difference between making a final and going home or winning a medal and finishing last. It’s also worthy to note that athletes are highly variable in response to tapering and in Mujika, 2009, some athletes were modeled to even reduce volume further in the final three days, so attempting to ascertain the best route for the individual is unquestionably superior to sleep walking and following “protocol.”