How to taper for cycling, especially when “Work issues” stop you from committing 100%
This is how a time-poor cyclist used a non-traditional yet scientifically proven cycling taper to increase his power and V02max by 4% in 2-weeks.
Through the Training Club, I coach a lot of time-poor cyclists and it’s not uncommon to get an email with a subject line like this…
You know straight away what this means – training plan adjustments. Or in the case of this cyclist, a total rethink of his cycling race week taper. To get a bit more context here’s the full email…
“Just to let you know I’ve had an unplanned series of things come up work-wise.
I could probably keep up the hours no probs, but it was too much for me this week (stress!!) to keep my head in the right place to feel like hitting all the right notes in training.
From past experience I know if I try and force things too much, it will stop being fun which ultimately won’t work. I’m still going to plan to finish all the sessions as I’ve worked too hard this season to let it go to waste. I’ll try and make sure I do the really important sessions, and when I physically can will just try and do the other stuff or accumulate CTL somehow. Definitely still planning to race State ITT & Nats, but prob just the TT.
Obviously what we are doing is working, I’m a completely different (better) bike rider than 8 months ago – the main issue moving forward seems to be that every 6 or so weeks I have a bad workweek, or get sick – either way this has teamed up to mean my CTL is lower than ideal.
Interestingly I just noticed that I’ve hit my best wattages for 6 sec (1345W), 1min (666W) and 15min (420W) in the last couple of weeks… all without any real concerted effort on unstructured rides.”
Skipping the end there about CTL and gainz (!), this was about 5 weeks out from the cyclist’s A event, the National Time Trial and 2 weeks from his B event the State Time Trial.
We were in a crucial stage of the building process when the email came through, the final build and overload phase.
We needed a way to continue to overload his training while minimising the stress (both mental and physical). And then we needed a way to move into a taper so he was in peak form for the National TT.
I will say at this point that 3 weeks out from an A event is when I would naturally start to taper – the main concern in this situation was not being able to do longer rides to maintain CTL and not always being mentally available to handle a lot of high-intensity workouts.
Spacing out the sessions and carefully constructing them was the key to the cyclist being able to complete all of the taper week workouts assigned.
In this case, it has meant a shorter than planned overload and taper week was needed. Which worked well as I had just come across a study that looked at exactly this. Called: Short-term performance peaking in an elite cross-country mountain biker.
When thinking about a traditional taper endurance athletes usually achieve performance peaks with 2–4 weeks of overload training followed by 1–3 weeks of tapering. For a time-poor cyclist that’s busy with work and kids, 7 weeks of uninterrupted riding is near impossible.
This study gave me some hope that we could still make some last minute increases in power.
The study investigated the effect of a shorter variation of the recommended overload and tapering approach in between two competitions, consisting of a 7-day overload period including daily high-intensity aerobic training (HIT) followed by a 5-day step taper between two competitions in an elite cross-country mountain biker.
The 7-day overload period consisted of one daily High Intensity Training session, and it was followed by a race week taper leading to a competition on day 6 after the last HIT session.
As this was a one person study, it was good to know that there was a control cyclist, a trained cyclist (1.86 m, 83 kg) who continued his regular training performed the same tests as the study subject.
All HIT sessions consisted of 3 sets of 9.5 minutes of 30-second work intervals interspersed with 15s recovery, with 3 min recovery in between sets (Rønnestad et al., 2014a). Power output during recovery was 50% of the work intervals, so it’s active recovery.
I will give you a description of the exact protocol with intensities in a moment. Understand though, as with any HIT workouts, these are really intense workouts if done right, yes they hurt, but they are broken down into broken chunks that go along way in making the effort easier*. *relative term 😛
The aim of HIT is to achieve highest possible average power output across all three sets. And that’s how you measure their success. On the average power for each 9.5 minutes. The great news is that these workouts work. I’ve used this protocol many times before and had great results.
I’ve had cyclists extend their best ever numbers across this duration simply because the effort is broken down.
The HIT sessions were interspersed with four easy cycling sessions of 1.2-1.5 h in Zone 1 and during the 5-day step taper total training volume was reduced by 78% compared to the overload period.
At pre-test, the elite cyclist’s
- VO2peak was 89 mL/kg/1min
- Peak aerobic power (Wmax) was 6.8 W/kg.
Values for the control cyclist were
- V02peak was 63 mL/kg/1min
- Wmax was 2.4 W/kg
All further measurements of the control cyclist were within a range of -1 to 1% of pre-values, indicating that the test equipment and procedures were reliable and the control cyclist’s fitness level was steady.
Perceived feeling of wellbeing in the legs was recorded every day from pre-test until the final competition. The elite cyclist perceived gradually heavier legs during the overload period, which totally understandable.
On day 1 of the taper, performance on all measurements declined.
On day 4 of the taper, the elite cyclist felt his legs were good. All measurements were 3-7% higher than at pre.
Two days after the last test (i.e., day 6 after the overload period), the cyclist’s legs felt even better and he achieved his largest winning gap of the season in the national cup (2.5 minutes).
V02max and MAP were +3-7%
This limited study shows that an elite mountain biker (11th in UCI World Cup one week prior to the pre-test) could achieve a rather large supercompensation by using a 12-day performance peaking protocol.
So what exactly is the performance peaking protocol and the HIT workout used? See below.
2 Week Performance Peaking Cycling Taper Protocol
|3 x 13||3 x 13||3 x 13||3 x 13||3 x 13||3 x 13||3 x 13|
The 3 x 13 workouts were:
WU: 15 minutes with 3 x 1-minute spin ups building to 90% of FTP
MS: 3 x (13 x 30-seconds at 120% of FTP. 15 seconds rest after each). 3 minutes rest between sets.
CD: Finish time at 56-70% of FTP
As you can see, it was all intensity then the step taper. A step taper is where you take the training load down to a much lower level than you have been working at in one quick step, and then maintain that lower level for the period of the taper.
Note: A step taper is where you take the training load down to a much lower level than you have been working at in one quick step, and then maintain that lower level for the period of the taper.
I decided against the exact protocol because of the cyclist’s situation with work. So I wanted to space out the HIT days with easy days to give him a break. I also went for a linear taper, a slow reduction in volume and intensity, as I wanted to make up keep the intensity going for as long as possible but try and keep him as fresh as possible.
His Cycling Race Week Taper Looked Like This:
Starting on 28 August with we had two weeks of the final build focussing on specificity in a handmade ergo file based on the National TT course, and power intervals of around 1 minute. There was no time for longer outdoor rides. Then we had a rest week before moving into the race week taper, shown below.
|Taper 1||Rest||3 x 13||Recovery||3 x 13||Pre-race||NSW TT||Recovery|
|Taper 2||3 x 13||Recovery||2 x 13||Recovery||1 x 13||TT Run||Pre-race|
This resulted in a really nice increase across all metrics. Remember these are after a big build up, but 2 weeks to sharpen up is good compared to a traditional taper.
|V02max mL/min/Kg||69||72||4.3% increase|
|MAP W||477||496||4% increase|
|mFTP W||395||420||6.3% increase|
|pMax W||1385||1542||11.3% increase|
You will see in the chart below how the light blue bars that show CTL slowly reduced over this period. This was controlled to not lose too much fitness as we needed his TSB, the yellow bars, to be in the positive at around +20 on race day.
What is also of interest in this chart is the dark blue line that gradually increases over the period. This is Chronic Intensity Load (CIL) a metric that h\uses a rolling average of the Intensity Factor (how hard a ride in compared to the riders FTP). It increases because the rides go harder over this period, even though Acute Training Load dropped. I believe this played an important roll in getting the cyclist ready for their race.
This chart plots modeled V02max. You can see that when the volume (CTL) dropped, V02max shot up. The job of the taper is to create and keep this increase as long as possible, which the short workouts were able to do.
If you’re not up for 9.5 minute work intervals, I’ve seen solid increases in power for other cyclist’s I coach with variations of this session and protocol over 2 weeks. For example, a shorter work interval of 6.5 minutes with a 3 minute rest interval, resulted in the following:
- pMax W = 7% increase
- mVO2Max = 16% increase
- mFTP = 21% increase
This is a great way for the time-poor athlete to add the elements of a traditional taper on a more realistic time schedule of 2 weeks.
Before I go I want to acknowledge a well-known block training study that I basically ignored when putting together my taper protocol for this cyclist. The study showed consecutive days in a row to be a very successful strategy when planning HIT workouts. In fact, five of the same sessions in one week resulted in increased VO2max and peak power output (Wmax) by 4.6 and 3.7%, compared to no changes from a group that used the traditional sequencing of two hard days interspersed with low-intensity training.
The unique requirements of any situation need decisive decisions to be made. And I would rather the cyclist complete every workout then blow up due to stress or other life factors. Professional athletes can put everything on the line and take time to recover.
When you (as a time-poor cyclist) get off the trainer, you are most likely racing to work or feeding the kids. Not the ideal prep for a National race – but hey would we have it any other way, right?