How to Taper for The Open
You’ve been training really hard this year, and probably even harder these last few weeks or months getting ready for the Open.
Now don’t make the big mistake of crushing yourself in final weeks with the hopes of making big changes.
Instead, work on making a smooth descent leading to the competition—which is called a taper.
Tapering occurs for all athletes as they lead into their biggest event of the year. Have the discipline to taper properly and you will be surprised at how much better you feel going into the Open, and your performance will reflect this.
Don’t mistake the taper as rest either! There is still work to be done, and you will train at competition level intensity, but with careful tweaks to optimize your recovery.
You should focus on 3 primary avenues for recharging both mind and body:
- Nervous System
Nervous System Recharge
During weeks of hard training, the body gets beat up, but the nervous system takes a toll as well. Research shows that the accumulation of hard training sessions can decrease the activity of the autonomic nervous system leading to a drop in performance (REF). This has led to the rise of wearable devices that measure the operational state if your nervous system.
These devices look at heart rate variability, which measure the subtle adjustments that occur between each heartbeat. Knowing this can determine the state of nervous system regulation, which provides an objective measure of fitness, recovery, and health.
The science behind this is based on how cardiovascular function is controlled by either the parasympathetic (rest and digest) system or the sympathetic (fight or flight) system. While at rest, heart rate is regulated by the parasympathetic nervous system, which produces a slight variability in heart rate (and tends to be even more sporadic among fit people).
When it’s time for the sympathetic system to ramp things up, it sends a flood of hormones throughout the body that gets things ready for performance. Changes driven by the sympathetic nervous system include pupil dilation, sweating, increased heart rate, and increased blood pressure. This increase in sympathetic stimulation makes the timing between each heart beat more regular.
This is all to point out, that extended time training at peak capacity, especially when paired with other life stressors, decreases the regulation between the 2 systems.
Intensive training with limited recovery, can leave the body floating somewhere in the middle, not able to push maximal intensity, and not able to shut things off to maximize recovery.
There are an assortment of wearable products on the market, that report a heart rate variability score to your smartphone. If you’re a techie or motivated by a score card, these devices are helpful. But ultimately, it’s only data— what really matters is what you do with that data. It doesn’t take advanced analytics to apply strategies for a nervous system reboot.
Recharge your Autonomic Nervous System
The following recovery strategies for nervous system function should be used to amplify your taper leading up to the Open. Some are very practical (and should be incorporated year round), while others are geared for the elite, looking to get a slight edge.
Sleep is the holy grail of recovery. If do one thing to recharge your body, try to maximize the amount and quality of your sleep.
That means making sacrifices to ensure you’re getting the best sleep possible.
Shut off the tv, computer, and phone a few hours before bed. Also, your bedroom should resemble a cave: dark, relaxing, and cool (optimal sleep temperature is 60-67 degrees). (ref)
Granted, you have probably heard all of this before! This time don’t just say you will, actually make a pledge to 6-weeks of better sleep.
Backing off your daily coffee or pre-workout ritual would be a good move for the next few weeks. This will support better sleep and help re-tune your nervous system accustomed to the consistent buzz.
There is a good amount of evidence showing caffeine improves sports performance (ref), so feel free to kick it back into gear on competition day. You may even feel a bigger impact from the short caffeine hiatus.
Alcohol is a depressant which has a strong impact on the nervous system. Obviously heavy drinking does not mix well with athleticism and should not happen if performance is a priority. But even the occasional drink of two alters the production of brain hormones that regulate the autonomic nervous system. For that reason, go for 2-weeks no booze, if you really want peak performance on game day.
Cold Water Immersion
The social media ice bath photo is all the rage these days. Although the research supporting a direct performance enhancement remains unclear, the ice bath does appear to support nervous system recovery. In a study of cyclists, an ice bath helped promote recovery of the nervous system following a hard ride (ref). Or if you’re not one for jumping into a tub of ice water, dunking your face into cold water showed similar results (ref).
So far you’ve been instructed to go to bed early, stop drinking booze and coffee, and dunk yourself in a bath of ice water—you may be rethinking this thing? How about the opportunity to treat yourself to a massage?
There’s a common belief that massage supports performance and reduces risk for injury. This may be possible by decreasing muscle tension and improving blood flow, however, that research remains inconclusive.
We do know that massage is an effective way to promote relaxation, improve mood, and a decrease stress hormones. All beneficial to tuning the nervous system prior to going into battle (ref).
Potentially more effective than your typical day spa, would be a professional body worker. Check in with someone you trust to like a sports massage therapist, stretch therapists, chiropractor, or physical therapists to work their magic on your tight spots along with some rest and relaxation.
Every athlete has the natural desire to “panic train” in the weeks leading up to the event. It’s completely natural to feel this way—wanting to utilize every ounce of energy possible to get into peak condition. But in the final weeks of training, it’s the rest more than the work that will improve your fitness the most.
Killing yourself now isn’t going to make any significant improvements, but by neglecting recovery you’re likely to blunt the physiological adaptations you’ve been working towards.
Hard training sessions also increases your risk of injury, and with only weeks leading up to the event you’ve got little time for the body to adequately heal itself.
Don’t fear a performance drop off with a few weeks of deload either! You’re much more likely to boost performance by turning down the training plan.
For example, track and field athletes significantly increase explosive ability and thereby performance following a 3 week taper (ref). Additionally, tapering has been shown to benefit strength among weightlifters (ref), and improve performance for endurance athletes such as runners, swimmers, cyclists, rowers, and triathletes (ref).
Although it’s not as simple as taking time off! To get maximal benefits, the taper formula has to be done correctly to maintain your gains, or even improve them a bit.
Intensity, Load, and Volume
Assuming you’ve been busting your butt to this point, it’s time to start reducing your training load.
The three big factors in the prescription for training load are intensity, volume, and frequency.
- Intensity- The percent of your max capacity you’re working.
- Volume- The total number of reps and sets (which is amplified with greater intensity).
- Frequency- The number of training sessions.
The key to a successful taper is DON’T back off the intensity!
Endurance athletes still go at race pace, and strength and power athletes continue to hit heavy lifts. Studies show that endurance and strength performance may even improve a bit by training at high intensities leading up to the event (ref). This is likely due to the bump in intensity facilitated by the extra recovery, and there may even be a potentiation effect provided by heavy lifting in the days leading up to a competition.
Regardless of the reasons why, continue to push some heavy weights and fast metcons so that you’re ready for that level of intensity on game day.
So without adjusting the intensity of your workouts, to reduce the training load, volume and frequency must be decreased.
Starting with frequency, it’s not the time to start skipping workouts. Being in the gym and feeling the energy, should keep you motivated for what’s coming next. Laying back tends to spark laziness and nutrition can go off the rails.
This leaves volume as the final variable in the formula. The amount of what you’re doing in the gym should be dropped significantly. The research shows that dropping volume by 50% provides the best results (ref).
So as part of your taper, you’re still spending time in the gym, doing a few mini strength sessions or metcons, you’ve probably got a bunch of time to fill.
Not a problem….Fill the extra time with work to optimize your movement!
Your greatest opportunity to improve your performance over the next 2 weeks is not going to come from building strength or conditioning. At this point, you are going to up your score by enhancing your movement.
Here’s where you need to focus your time and energy to get maximum return on your investment.
1. Pain- Any nagging aches and pains going into the first workout will limit performance more than anything else.
The initial two weeks of our 30 Day Fix programs would be a perfect approach for this. Following the guidelines for the initial 2 weeks, will help deloading the painful joint, and provide some accessory work to help facilitate recovery.
You can download each program here:
2. Mobility- It’s certain that you will need full shoulder flexion (arms overhead) and a full squat to complete the workouts. Significant mobility improvements aren’t likely to happen in the next 2 weeks (especially if mobility is a major struggle for you), but even just a few degrees in key areas can make the difference between a made or missed rep.
3. Stability- Better stability optimizes position, limits movement inefficiencies, and allows the prime movers to work at their best.
Dynamic stability is a combination of muscle strength and neuromuscular control. You can’t do much now to build muscle strength, but you can improve neuromuscular control in such a short time. It also provides an effective training stimulus while using lighter loads.
Neuromuscular control is best developed with slower and pause tempos, along with drills that emphasize stability in weaker positions (e.g.- overhead carries, pause squats, etc.)
Additionally, using your Crossover Symmetry Shoulder and Hip & Core System several times each day is a great way to “grease the groove” for better joint stability.
4. Skills- The sport of fitness includes many movements that require a degree of skill. You will improve performance more over the next two weeks by improving your skills, rather than trying to build your strength or cardio. You know probably know what movements will show up in the Open, spend some time working on performing those movements better.