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Maximizing Athletic Performance: The Art of the Taper

Taper! When I was competing I LOVED that word. I always looked forward to the decrease in my intensity and volume in the days leading up to a competition!

When to taper

Whether it be track cycling (my sport), swimming, track and field, or cross-country, a taper is an extremely important part of achieving peak performance, but a full taper should only be done before the most important competitions. A mini taper can be done before other competitions, and for some competitions your child may chose not to taper at all. If she competes often, tapering for every competition may cause her to stagnate or worse yet, lose fitness. In order to improve, your child needs to increase her work load and intensity; if she is tapering for every relatively unimportant event, she won't maximize her gains.

Track cyclists on velodromeYour child needs to know what her ultimate goal is and understand that in order to be as prepared as possible for that goal she may need to sacrifice results and train through less important competitions.

When it comes to pride, this is sometimes easier said then done. It won't be easy for your child to show up to a competition tired and put in a less-than-stellar performance. The reward will come at the end when she has a personal best performance at the competition that really matters.

I found that racing unimportant races in a tired state was a great way to raise my game. I am extremely competitive, so even when I was exhausted I always pushed myself harder in a race than I ever could in training. I always reaped the benefits of training through smaller events when I did finally taper for an important one.


A mini taper generally occurs over a few days to a week. During my career my main goal each year was either the World Championships or the Olympics. Therefore, before World Cups and important national team selection races I only did a mini taper. When my coaches developed my taper, they worked backward from my competition. For example:

  • The day before my competition I did what we called "openers".  Openers were about half of a normal workout and focused on getting into the heart rate zone or zones that I'd be using most in my race. Its purpose was to wake my body up and make sure I was ready to work hard again after several days of rest.
  • Two days before I would go for an easy hour ride.
  • Three days before my competition I would generally do an easy hour ride as well, but sometimes I would take the day completely off from training.
  • Four and five days out I'd do a normal workout, but I would control myself and wouldn't over do it. If I did a second workout either day it consisted of an easy half hour to hour ride.
  • Six days out I'd generally ride for an easy hour or two.

Every sport is different, so your child should work with his or her coach on developing a mini-taper schedule that works for them and their sport.

Full taper

A full taper can begin anywhere from a week to two weeks prior to the competition. It follows the same structure as a mini taper in the days proceeding the competition, but involves less drastic rest further out. For example, when I wasn't tapering I generally trained three to four days in a row before taking an easy day. Often I did two workouts a day. For a big taper, I'd decrease to one intense workout a day, and if there was a second workout it would just be an easy ride. I'd also decrease the number of days between rest days, so instead of going three days before a rest day, I'd do two days, and sometimes even one.

It is easy to think that more is better and that last minute cramming will pay off, but in general your child is better off going into her competition rested. This is true for sports as well as other activities and academics.

Rest means rest!

Every athlete and every sport is different, but the principle is the same: peak performances come from rested athletes. Decreasing your child's work load is the most import part of a taper, but making sure she is getting proper sleep and nutrition is also important. Your child needs to be disciplined; just because she has a rest day doesn't mean she can go play ultimate Frisbee or spend hours on her feet shopping. She truly needs to rest if she wants to perform at her best.

Erin Mirabella is a two-time Olympic track cyclist, mother, and MomsTeam's track cycling expert.

Created February 5, 2011