July 3, 2012 16:52 pm
We are finally getting there. Less than 30 days to the opening ceremony of the greatest show on earth and we are all working flat out to make sure all is in place to support our greatest team. This is time for final selections and also it is time for athletes and their support teams to finalise preparations for the Olympics. So what does it mean in real terms and how does science help athletes and coaches in the last part of the journey towards the Olympics?
In the next few weeks leading into the Games, athletes will be altering their training programmes changing the quantity and the quality of their training. The most important goal for coaches and their support teams in the last year leading to the Games has been to increase the physical, technical and psychological abilities of the athletes to the highest possible levels. Furthermore, everyone has been working hard to develop a precisely controlled and individualised training program to ensure that the maximal performance is attained in the Olympic competition. In order to make this happen, it is necessary to apply a marked reduction in the training load undertaken by the athletes during the days or weeks before the competition. This training phase has been defined as “taper” and as my colleague Dr. Mujika can be defined as “a progressive, nonlinear reduction of the training load during a variable amount of time that is intended to reduce physiological and psychological stress of daily training and optimize sport performance”.
So, how can coaches control the taper and how do they manipulate the training load? Pretty much there are 3 variables which can be altered and they are: training volume (how much), training intensity (how hard) and training frequency (how many times). Different coaches have different approaches to tapering. It is such a crucial time in athlete’s preparation and it is crucial to get it right. In fact, while training load is markedly reduced during the taper in an attempt to reduce accumulated fatigue, it is important to make sure that reduced training should not be detrimental to training-induced adaptations. An insufficient training stimulus could in fact present the same outcomes of detraining.
A taper duration of 8 to 14 days seems to represent the borderline between the positive influence of fatigue disappearance and the negative influence of detraining on performance. However, performance improvements can also be expected after 1-, 3-, or 4-week tapers. So at this time, science support is crucial to make sure that training sessions are monitored and more data can be provided to the coaches to decide how to manipulate the training sessions in order to make sure the athletes are in the best possible shape during the Olympics. Various physiological and psychological parameters are nowadays obtained almost in real time during training and together with some specific key performance indicators provide a comprehensive view of each athlete’s status and help in making evidence-based decisions. So while research suggests that a reduction in volume rather than intensity and frequency is the best strategy to adopt (see the figures below), all the people working with Team GB athletes know well that it is about individualising the training approach for each member of #ourgreatestteam.
All the graphs show the dose-response curve for the effects of altering training characteristics in athletes (redrawn from here). The magnitude of the difference (effect size) was considered according to the scale proposed by Cohen being either small (< 0.2), moderate ([0.2, 0.5[) or large (≥ 0.5).