As anticipation for the Olympic Games in Vancouver reaches a crescendo, many assume the athletes are also in a frenzy. They picture speedskater Shani Davis or alpine skier Lindsey Vonn putting in the hardest workouts of their lives in the days leading up to their events. The truth is, in the last few days prior to their events, Davis, Vonn and almost all of the Olympic contenders are more likely to be engaged in a training technique much more difficult for an elite athlete to pull off: rest.
Technically, this training technique is known as tapering. Elite athletes employ tapering prior to an event to bank their energy, but athletes of all levels can use tapering to allow their systems to gather steam prior to a specific day (or days) when they want to put in the most powerful performance possible.
To taper properly, you must first gain improvement via a block of weeks or months of escalating amounts of exercise. Then you strategically reduce your exercise for a prescribed number of days leading up to an event. This way you maintain the hard-won improvements you've made to date, but you don't push your body to new improvements and cause fatigue, which could undercut your performance on the Big Day.
The most effective tapering technique I've found involves decreasing the volume of exercise but not the intensity. For example, say you normally power-walk at high intensity for an hour a day. Three or four days before a major hike, you would trim your power walk to 45 minutes but still do it at high intensity. The next day you would walk for 30 minutes, and the day after for 15 minutes, both still at high intensity. Then you would take a rest day or two before the hike.
Timing, of course, is key. My colleague Max Testa, M.D., says that ideally, you should taper your exercise volume three days to one week before your event, depending on the type of event you will be doing. If it's an endurance event (a long hike or bike ride, marathon or triathlon), your tapering should start about a week in advance. If you are preparing for a sprint or team sports event, you should start two to three days beforehand.
How long you should taper within the advised range is tied to how quickly you detrain, which is generally mirrored by your trainability. Do you require months to get in shape? Then you likely lose your improvements slowly, too. You should taper over the greatest number of days within the advised range. Or do you see improvement in a matter of days or weeks? This generally means you also detrain quickly. I do, and that means I need to taper my exercise volume over the fewest days within the advised range.
The final step is what elite trainers consider the "art" of exercise-performance science: tinkering. Once Testa gives athletes a tapering range, he advises even the most experienced athletes to experiment within it to discover the ideal number of days they need to taper. Likewise, you will need to try different amounts to discover your ideal tapering time. Do you do your best after four days of tapering or after 12? And what feels best? Some athletes prefer to compete supple and pain-free; others prefer to have some tension in their muscles.
If you taper for a week, say, and do not shine, you have probably tapered too little; you need to adjust your tapering schedule next time. But if you taper for a week and then execute a powerful performance, you are seeing the benefits of the right amount of rest via the technique of tapering.
Is there a fitness topic you would like Dr. Heiden to address in a future column? You can e-mail him at www.fasterbetterstronger.com; click on the "Feedback" button.
( Eric Heiden, M.D., a five-time Olympic gold medalist speed skater, is now an orthopedic surgeon in Utah. He co-authored "Faster, Better, Stronger: Your Fitness Bible" (HarperCollins) with exercise performance physician Max Testa, M.D., and DeAnne Musolf. www.heidenortho.com)