Tapering and peak performance at the end of the season
We are almost at the end of the football and field hockey season. As a trainer/coach you have likely noticed that fatigue is starting to build up in your players; they are not as fresh as at the beginning of the season. And to make things worse: the most important games of the season are yet to come! How do you make sure your players can still excel during these games? In today’s blog we will discuss how you can apply the tapering principle to get a peak performance of your players at the end of the season.
In the previous blog we discussed how to plan a conditional training to improve your team’s physical fitness. However, at the end of the season fitness of the players is most likely not the limiting factor for optimal physical performance. Rather the accumulated fatigue of the season starts to play a role. Therefore, in the last 2-3 weeks of the season recovery is crucial for the performance capacity of players. To let your team achieve a peak performance at the end of the season, the principle of tapering can be used.
The tapering principle
Tapering is ‘a progressive reduction of training load aiming to reduce physical and mental stress of training in order to maximize performance after an intense training period’ 1. By exposing athletes to less load, they will experience less muscle damage. Therefore, their bodies can regenerate from the accumulated fatigue over the season2. Furthermore, since they are still exposed to a certain amount of load, their fitness level does not deteriorate. Due to unaffected fitness levels and declining fatigue players’ performance capacity will increase (see image). Now that we know the connection between training load reduction and performance capacity, we need to know how we should reduce training load for optimal tapering effects.
A reduction of training load can be achieved by adjusting three factors: frequency of training (i.e. how many sessions per week), duration of training and intensity of training. In tapering it is important to keep the intensity of training the same3,4. For training adaptations, the principle of ‘use it or lose it’ holds: If one would reduce the intensity, certain physical capacities (e.g. explosiveness) are not challenged and therefore the player will gradually lose this ability. It is for this reason that it is important to keep the intensity the same.
Achieving a peak performance
Considering that the intensity of training can’t be changed, the volume of training load should be changed. This leaves us with two possible adjustments: changing the frequency and/or duration of training. For these two factors, shortening duration of training is the most optimal way to successfully apply tapering. In soccer, a 25% reduction in duration is already effective for improving performance! 1 This means that if you had planned a small-sided game with 4 intervals of 4 minutes separated by a rest period of 2 minutes, you should only perform 3 of these intervals while keeping the work (4min) and rest periods (2min) the same. This way you reduce the volume of the training load, without changing the intensity (and thus no decline in physical fitness will occur (detraining))!
In contrast to our intuitive thought that the peak performance at the end of the season is reached with an increased training load (with the goal of improving fitness), we should train less! It is not the fitness level limiting performance capacity at the end of the season, it is fatigue that plays an important role. By training smarter, detraining effect will not occur while simultaneously enabling players to recover from accumulated fatigue. It is not training harder that increases our performance at the end of the season, it is training smarter that makes the difference!
JOHAN’s tip of the week
Reducing the duration of training can best be achieved by limiting the number of repetitions of exercises. In the image below you can see how you can adjust the repetitions for different formats of small-sided games!
Fessi M.S., Zarrouk N., Di Salvo, V., Filetti C., Barker, A.R. & Moalla, W. (2016). Effects of tapering on physical match activities in professional soccer players. Journal of Sports Sciences.
Coutts A., Reaburn P., Piva T.J. & Murphy A. (2007) Changes in selected biochemical, muscular strength, Power, and endurance measures during deliberate overreaching and tapering in rugby league players. International journal of Sports Medicine. 28; 116-124.
Bosquet L., Montpettit J., Arivisais D. & Mujika I. (2007) Effects of tapering on performance: A meta-analysis. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.
Mujika I. & Padilla S. (2003). Scientific bases for precompetition tapering strategies. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.
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