Why did only three out of
twenty-six track gold medalists from the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo win gold medals
in the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona? Why did so many athletes' finishing performances
change so dramatically in just one year's time?
Injuries, race tactics, and competitive pressures probably played an important role in
determining the Olympic results. However, one reason many of the defending world champions
could not repeat their previous-year performances was their inability to fully reach and
properly time their peak performances to occur during the Olympic Games.
It may come as a surprise that elite athletes are not always able to "peak"
perfectly. Although their goals may be to peak for high-level competitions such as the
National and World Championships, all of us have similarly important races where we want
to do our best. Peaking for a race can usually be the difference between doing our very
best or performing below our potential.
When done properly, training for a peak can put the finishing touches on your racing
ability. It can give you the extra edge you need for a breakthrough performance or to run
your best in the race or races that are most important to you.
Studies have shown that when the proper peak training is performed, significant
improvements in racing times can occur in a relatively short period of time.1 In addition,
peak performances can be timed with reasonable accuracy so that a runner can be at his or
her best for the goal race.2
Tiny Siena College in Albany, New York, won five state cross-country championships in
seven years from 1980 to 1986. In each of those five championship years, Siena's
cross-country team was not the best team during the regular season.3
However, every year without fail, the other top teams would either (1) not improve on
their regular season performances, or (2) they would actually get worse at the end of the
season when the state championship meet rolled around. Fortunately, Siena coach Bob Reilly
would have his harriers physically and mentally prepared to peak when it counted most.
The result was five state titles, one second-place finish, and one third-place finish
in seven years. Retired from coaching since 1987, Reilly would be the first to admit that
the years his teams did not win the state title were the years they did not reach their
peak as a team at the state championship meet.
Unlike Reilly's Siena College teams, many runners and coaches do not understand how to
bring about, or plan, peak performances for their most important races of the year.
Therefore the goal of this article is to examine (1) what type of training to perform, and
(2) when, and for how long to perform it in order to reach and time your peak for a goal
race or series of races.
Tapering to Achieve Peak Performances
Reducing your training mileage in the days and weeks before your goal race, also
known as "tapering," is the peaking tactic most frequently used by runners and
their coaches. While tapering, in and of itself, will probably not produce a major peak in
your running performance, it is an important element of a smart peaking program.
In order to get a better understanding of the elements that work to produce a peak in
performance, let's take a look at some studies on tapering and peaking.
Tapering & Muscle Strengthfor College Swimmers
In 1985, Dr. David Costill, one of this country's premier exercise physiologists
and the Director of the Human Performance Laboratory at Ball State University in Muncie,
Indiana, led a study to measure the effects of an end-of-season tapering program on
competitive college swimmers. This study is often recognized by top coaches and scientific
experts as one of the classic studies on tapering. Costill, who is a competitive runner
and national-class age-group swimmer, performed the study on seventeen male college
swimmers. Each swimmer was measured for arm strength and race times before, during, and
after a two-week tapering period.
The study revealed that arm strength improved by an amazing 24 percent following the
tapering period. More importantly, however, was that long-distance race times dropped by
about 3.7 percent - an improvement that would help an 18:00 5K runner run 17:20 in just
two weeks! Similarly, a 40:00 10K runner would run 38:32 with this same 3.7 percent time
Although muscle strength was vastly improved after the taper, the study did not
necessarily show a strong link between the swimmers' increased muscle strength and their
improved race times. This suggests that other physiological variables may have been at
play in causing race times to improve.
shows that gradually reducing your mileage while continuing to perform speedwork will
produce a peak.
How did these swimmers taper? They simply reduced their mileage gradually over a 14-day
period before their championship meet. This gradual reduction in training mileage resulted
in about a 50 percent decrease in weekly mileage over the 14-day period. However, the
relative amount of training intensity during the taper was kept at about the same level as
before the taper.4
How does all of this apply to the average runner? Since swimming and running are both
endurance sports, runners can expect to attain similar physiological benefits from the
tapering program used by swimmers. Costill's study suggests that you should gradually cut
your average weekly mileage in half over a two-week period, but continue to perform about
the same percentage of your weekly mileage in the form of speed or interval-type workouts.
For instance, a 45-mile-a-week runner who runs about ten percent of her weekly mileage
(or 4.5 total miles per week) in the form of quality, or high-intensity, speed workouts
might cut her mileage to about 28 miles in the first week and then to 17 miles in the
second week before her goal race. This totals 45 miles for two weeks - or about half of
her weekly mileage prior to tapering.
In addition, she would continue to perform about ten percent of her new weekly mileage
at a high intensity by running about 2.8 miles (ten percent of 28 miles) of speedwork in
the first week and about 1.7 miles (ten percent of 17 miles) of speedwork in the second
Finally, to ensure the best possible results, she would also allow two to three days of
light jogging (or two days of light jogging and a day of complete rest) in the days
immediately before her important race.
Blood Lactate & Race Times Drop After 2-Week Taper
A more recent study involving fifteen well-conditioned female college swimmers
measured (1) the amount of lactic acid in the blood during hard workouts (a generally
agreed upon measure of racing fitness), and (2) race times during each week of a four-week
taper period - in order to determine the optimal length of a tapering period.
The researchers observed significant declines in blood lactic acid levels during hard
workouts as the four-week taper period progressed. This is an indication that hard
workouts had become easier and racing fitness was improving. In fact, performance times
improved during the taper, with peak times achieved between 10 to 17 days after the taper
These findings support the benefits of a two-week taper versus a longer or shorter
tapering period. This study also offers another physiological explanation (besides
increased muscle strength) for improved performances after a tapering period, namely,
lower blood lactic acid concentrations during hard running.5
Recent Study on Runners
While both of the previously mentioned studies offer valuable scientific
insights into the tapering and peaking process for swimmers, a recent research study has
shown that similar results will also occur with runners after tapering.
This particular study analyzed the effects of three different types of tapers on ten
highly trained, middle-distance male runners. The three different tapering programs
included: (1) a high-intensity/low-mileage taper, (2) a low-intensity/low-mileage taper,
and (3) a rest-only taper.
The runners were tested for race times, leg strength, aerobic capacity, oxidative
enzyme activity, muscle glycogen concentration, red blood cell mass, and total blood
volume before and after each tapering program. Significant improvements in running
performance can usually be associated with improvements in any of these areas.
The results of this study provide us with even more information about how the body
responds to different types of tapering and peaking techniques. While aerobic capacity was
not affected by any of the tapers, leg strength improved by about the same percentage in
all three tapers. However, the high-intensity/low-mileage tapering regimen proved to be
superior since it produced considerable increases in muscle glycogen concentrations, total
blood volume, red blood cell mass, and oxidative enzyme activity, all of which make for
better distance running.
research suggests that a 10 to 17 day taper period will produce the best results.
Most importantly, the high-intensity/low-mileage taper produced a major improvement in
the runners' race times. These performance peaks were confirmed when the runners being
tested ran at race pace on a treadmill for an incredible 27 percent longer after the
high-intensity/low-mileage taper versus before it. With all of the physiological variables
that improved following the high-intensity/low-mileage taper, it is no wonder that runners
ran faster following this particular tapering program.6
Constructing Your Own Tapering Schedule
Now that we've reviewed (1) the various ways to go about reaching a peak, and
(2) the many benefits associated with proper tapering, we can put all of this information
together to provide you with a solid idea of how to construct a peaking schedule that fits
your individual situation.
At the bottom of this page, Table 1 lists (1) the amount of mileage, (2) the number of
days, and (3) the number of high-intensity or quality speed workouts that should be
performed depending on your average weekly mileage before tapering.
Since one of the studies mentioned earlier suggests that 10- to 17-day tapering periods
are optimal, the length (or number of days) of the tapering periods listed in Table 1 all
fall within this range.
Performing Speed Workouts During the Taper Period
While you want to continue to perform high-intensity workouts during your
tapering period, it is important to eliminate all long, hard interval workouts that tax
your body's energy supplies. Therefore, it is recommended that you perform fast repeats of
short distances with long jogging breaks for full recovery.
Jack Daniels, the outstanding physiologist and distance running coach at Cortland
University in New York, calls this "repetition training." He suggests short
repeats at a pace that is about two seconds per 200 meters or four seconds per 400 meters
faster than your current 5K race pace. In addition, Daniels recommends recovery periods
between each fast repeat that last about five times as long as the fast repeats
themselves.7 This can usually be accomplished by slowly jogging about twice the distance
of the fast repeats between each fast repeat.
For instance, an 18:45 5K runner races at a pace of 45 seconds per 200 meters or 90
seconds per 400 meters. Therefore, he or she might run (1) eight repeats of 200 meters in
43 seconds with 400 meters of slow recovery jogging between each repeat, (2) six repeats
of 300 meters in 64 seconds with 600 meters of slow recovery jogging between each repeat,
or (3) four repeats of 400 meters in 86 seconds with 800 meters of slow recovery jogging
between each repeat.
Table 2 (on the left-hand side of this page) provides a sample tapering schedule for a
45 mile-a-week runner. You can use it along with the information in Table 1 (on page 3) to
construct your own detailed tapering schedule to peak for your particular goal race.
First, count backwards the number of days required for your taper. Then schedule the
appropriate number of speed workouts and space them out properly throughout the taper
period. Finally, fill in the easy days to meet the overall mileage guidelines provided in
Table 1, based on your average weekly mileage prior to the taper period.
Other Considerations for Planning Your Peak
In order to reap the full benefits of the tapering programs we've outlined in
this article, you should first complete at least three months of consistent and reasonably
challenging training - including five to eight weeks of interval training.
On the other hand, it is also important that you do not arrive at the tapering phase
already feeling stale or overtrained. While a proper taper might be able to salvage your
condition, there are no guarantees if you enter this final phase of training already wiped
out physically and mentally.
during the taper period should consist of short, fast repeats with long rest breaks.
Furthermore, distance runners are notorious for not wanting to ease up in their
training - often afraid that they'll get out of shape after a few days of taking it easy.
This basic insecurity probably explains more than anything else why so many distance
runners have difficulty planning and achieving a peak for their goal race.
However, it is absolutely necessary that you let go of this tendency as you approach
your goal race. The tapering program outlined for your particular situation does not offer
any compromises, therefore, you must have the confidence that it will work and the courage
to follow it through
. This will be especially tough since many runners actually report feeling sluggish and
fatigued during their tapering periods. However, it is important not to panic, since these
feelings are common during this final training phase as your body adjusts to the less
demanding workload and begins to prepare for maximum performance. Take heart that the same
runners who report these feelings yet stick to their tapering plan also will experience
the rewards of a full peak. During their goal race, they will run effortlessly and feel
full of energy.
Finally, you should not disregard the mental aspect of peaking. It is important to
continue to prepare yourself by mentally rehearsing and visualizing yourself performing
well in your goal race. In addition, you should be gaining confidence in knowing you have
tapered properly and are well-rested for an outstanding effort as the day of your goal
Planning to reach a peak for your goal race is a relatively simple process.
According to scientific research studies, the most effective way to reach a peak involves
a high-intensity/low-mileage tapering protocol.
This means you should gradually reduce your mileage over a 10- to 17-day period while
maintaining about the same percentage of high-intensity speedwork that you performed prior
to your taper. Therefore, since your mileage is being cut in half, the amount of
high-intensity speed training should also be cut in half.
However, shorter and faster repeats with longer rest periods between them, should
replace longer, harder interval or speed workouts. Repeats of 200 to 400 meters in length
at two to four seconds faster than current 5K race pace, respectively, are recommended.
Finally, two to three days of light jogging before your big race will have you
completely ready for your best possible effort. The biggest danger is overdoing it in
those days right before your goal race. By following these guidelines in the days before
your goal race, you can have the confidence of knowing that you will be ready for a peak
1, 4 D. Costill et. al., "Effects of Reduced Training on Muscular
Power," The Physician and Sportsmedicine, Vol. 13, No. 2, February 1985, pp. 94-101.
2, 5 R.F. Kenitzer, Jr. et. al., "Blood Lactate Concentration in
Female Competitive Collegiate Swimmers During End Season Taper," Medicine &
Science in Sports & Exercise, Vol. 21, No. 2 Supplement #137, May 1989.
3 D. Brucker et. al., "Peaking the Siena Way," Siena College
Cross-Country Annual, May 1986, p. 13.
6 B. Shepley et. al., "Physiologic Effects of Tapering in Highly
Trained Athletes," Medicine & Science