During the week before a major race, cyclists and other endurance athletes temper their training schedule. Instead of continuing to push themselves and improve their times, they reduce the duration or intensity of their workouts. This phase of training is called tapering, and coaches recommend it before every significant race.
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Tapering might seem counter-intuitive, because you want to build as much strength and stamina as you can before your race. However, although training increases your performance in the long term, it tires your body in the short term. If you train too hard during the days before a big race, your strength is already depleted when you begin the competition, and you are likely to tire faster than you would if you were well-rested. Tapering allows your body to recover from your intensive training before you get in the saddle on race day. Talk to your coach about the particular demands of your road race and how you should taper during your final week of training.
Taper to Win
According to Ed Burke, author of "Serious Cycling," tapering improves cyclists' performance by an average of 3 percent. A study by Dr. Frank Pyke of the Australian Sports Institute found that tapering for one week prior to a race improved cyclists' performance and tapering for two weeks prior to a race improved cyclists' leg strength measurably. This shows that tapering is not effective primarily because it improves strength, but because of other factors, such as the body's amount of stored carbohydrates and the muscles' ability to to function both aerobically and anaerobically.
A Good Balance
The key to tapering before a race is finding the right balance between recovery and training. If you do not ride at all, your performance will suffer, said Lance Armstrong's old cycling coach Chris Carmichael. Carmichael suggests reducing the length of your training sessions during the week before the race but keeping their intensity high. This ensures that your body is still in gear to perform when it comes time to race and that your muscles are prepared for the stresses of the competition.
Endurance vs. Sprint Events
The demands of an endurance event, such as a multi-day race or a single-day century, are different from those of a sprint event, such as a criterium. Talk to your coach about the best way for you to prepare for your event. As a general rule, the taper period is longer for endurance events and includes high-intensity workouts that address the specific needs of the race, such as steep hills. For shorter events, your coach might tell you to taper for only a few days and to include some training sessions in which you push yourself as hard as usual.