Podcast, Science and Physiology, Training

Tapering, periodisation and recovery with Iñigo Mujika, PhD | EP#256

 October 19, 2020

By  Mikael Eriksson



In this Episode you'll learn about:

  • Periodisation in practice: linear, reverse, block... who might benefit from what type of periodisation and when?
  • How to structure recovery from a macro level (taking a season break) to a micro level (time required between hard sessions) into your training plan
  • Tapering: best practices, scientific findings, potential benefits, and how to factor in individuality
  • The time course of building and losing fitness (gaining adaptations vs. detraining)

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Short background

04:20 -

  • My name is Inigo Mujika and I am a sports physiologist and a level 3 swimming and triathlon coach.

    I have been involved in many different endurance sports over the years (I have over 20 years of experience from endurance sports) in a variety of capacities, both as a coach, coordinator and exercise physiologist.

    Moreover, I have also been involved in academia, currently I am an associative professor, and I have published plenty of research articles.

    I am most well-known for my research on tapering, recovery and de-training.

    Finally, I have also written several popular science books, out of which ”Endurance Training” is probably the most famous.


08:30 -

  • I think periodization is fundamental to any preparation for an endurance events.

    To me, periodization is basically a way of organizing the training in order to achieve a given goal.
  • Which approach towards periodization depends on several factors, age of the athlete, goal event and training history would be some of the most important.

    For instance, I would not recommend a block training approach to a junior athlete or an athlete that lacks a solid aerobic base of endurance training.

    As another example, for an age group athlete that targets maybe one 70.3 race in the spring/early summer and a full distance triathlon in September, then I would recommend a traditional periodization approach comprising of a general preparation phase (high volumes of low intensity training with little specificity), a specific phase (race specific training), an intensity phase (focus on quality/high intensity work) and after that finally a taper period.

    This would be my default periodization choice for age group athletes, however, if one athlete has had this same strategy for several years and stopped improving, then I would probably try another periodization strategy such as block periodization or reversed periodization in order to introduce a new stimuli for that athlete that he or she can respond accordingly to.
  • If one would define reversed periodization, the idea is to start off by doing plenty of high intensity training and from that work on extending the time the athlete can sustain that high intensity.
  • The idea behind block periodization is that one gives the body a very high stimuli of a certain kind during 2-4 weeks in order for the body to be able to really respond throughly to this, but you can only target one or at maximum a few aspects at a time (the rest only has a ”maintenance” focus).

    This approach would be more suited for advanced athletes who require a bigger stimuli for the body to adapt.


20:40 -

  • After a long season I think it is very important to allow oneself to take a break from triathlon specific activities, both from a physical and a mental perspective.

    For the professional triathletes that I have coached in the past, the off season has comprised of first two weeks totally free from training (no training has been allowed!), followed by two weeks of none specific triathlon training (hiking in the mountains, surfing, football etc., as long as it doesn’t involve any swimming, cycling and running!) and after this training has then slowly been ramped up again.

    I think that this 4 weeks approach of very little training stimuli actually benefits the athletes both from a mental and physical perspective.

    It will enable them to perform at their peak when the time is right as well as I have found that this off season is a really important way of keeping the athletes free from injuries.

    When it comes to age group athletes, I am not equally strict on the layout of the off season as I am for professional athletes (and this goes in both ways), I let the athletes decide more what they feel like doing and if they would only like one week off that’s okey, and if they would like 4 weeks off, that would be okay too.
  • When it comes to recovery during a training phase, I use a traditional periodization approach, comprising of around 3-4 weeks of a high training load followed by one week of reduced training load.

    It is hard to say an exact percentage of decline in training load during these de-load weeks (usually I do what seems logical) but on average let’s say between 40-60 % of the volume of a high training load week.

    For time crunched amateur athletes, this approach would, however, not be recommended since one would like to utilize all hours available for training.

    Then it is better to have a fairly constant training volume, but it is very important to avoid monotony between training days and weeks, so then you would maybe shift focus between the weeks, like for instance having more intense weeks mixed with more ”aerobic work” focused weeks.

    The main thing is to all the time introduce new stimuli for the body to adapt to!
  • When planning the recovery between sessions in a micro cycle (usually one week of training), it is very important to be aware of the physiological processes that occurs during recovery and the time course of these processes.

    Most importantly, one need to be able to refill glycogen stores and recovery from neuromuscular fatigue (can take both shorter and longer time than replenishing glycogen depending on the session).
  • Since triathlon comprises of three sports, this enables us to do a little bit more of overall intensity as it is possible to do a hard swim in the morning (mainly targeting the arms and upper body) followed by a hard bike or run session in the afternoon (only affecting the legs) and still get good quality out of both sessions, this would not be possible to the same extent for single-sport athletes.
  • When it comes to quantifying recovery, I am not a big fan of HRV as it in my opinion gives little extra information on the athlete’s state of recovery beyond subjective scores, morning body mass (a way of getting an idea of glycogen depletion and hydration state) and simply just looking at what kind of training the athlete has done in the past days or week.
  • When it comes to different recovery modalities or specific tools used to speed up recovery, one should think about periodizing the use of these to fit the specific goal(s) one has during a certain phase in the preparation for an event.

    The two most important recovery ”tools” that outshine any others by miles are nutrition and sleep.

    As you have gotten these in place one can utilize massage, compression gadgets (such as compression boots) and hydro therapy, as these have been found to potentially have a positive impact on recovery time.

    In terms of nutrition, in order to achieve certain metabolic goals (such as increasing fat metabolism etc.) in specific phases of the preparation, the approach towards how nutrition is used as a recovery tool must vary depending on what adaptations that are currently prioritized.
  • In regards to recovering from races, this is probably highly individual, but also seems to depend on how much ”muscle damage” the athlete induces, which in turn is dependent on how fast the athlete went in the race compared to how fast he could have gone.

    For instance, a professional triathlete may be able to run a stand alone marathon in 2:30h but runs his Ironman marathons in 2:50h, since he runs his Ironman marathon so much slower than what he is capable of, the time to recovery will be much less.


55:35 -

  • A taper is defined as a training strategy comprised of a phase with reduced training (load) that may or may not be used before a competition.
  • A meta analysis that I conducted found that there are a few aspects in regards to tapering that have a certain degree of scientific evidence, these include: a reduction of training volume by 50-60 % but without a reduction of training frequency, training intensity remains the same and the period should ideally be between 10-14 days.

    This approach would work for the majority of athletes, and these points can be used as a starting point from which every athlete can start develop his or hers individual optimal tapering strategy.

    To reach the conclusion of what taper strategy works best for you, one must simply adapt a ”trial and error” strategy, however, it is important to consider that mental factors can play a large roll into the race performance, and hence a bad race result could be due to mental factors rather than that something was wrong with the taper.
  • Some people would suggest that people with a larger percentage of slow muscle fibrers would need to reduce training volume a little bit less compared to people with a natural higher degree of fast muscle fibrers, but no scientific evidence back this idea.
  • There exists a few different strategies for tapering, which broadly can be divided into ”step taper” and ”progressive taper”, step taper employs the reduction in training immediately and this reduction is then maintained for the rest of the taper period, progressive taper on the other hand employs a successive reduction in training (either linear or exponential) throughout the taper period.

    The meta analysis of ours found that a progressive taper may be slightly more effective for single day events, however, for cycling stage races, the step taper approach could be very successful.
  • Finally, I would like to point out that the taper period is still a very important training period and one should most definitely consider it as just as important as all the other training phases, it is not just about going out for a ”coffee ride”, the taper period definitely include some hard training.

    Also, it is very important to pay attention to nutrition during the tapering, the calorie intake must be reduced in the same manner as the training, otherwise one risk of increasing weight just before the competition.

Training adaptions and de-training

1:13:40 -

  • Training is highly dynamic, we have the possibility to adapt to training and this also unfortunately means that those adaptions will go away after cessation of exercise.
  • De-training or loss of training induced adaptations can roughly be summarized to happen in three different areas:

    1. Cardiovascular de-adaptations - a loss in plasma volume follows almost immediately (just a couple of days) after cessation of exercise, which in turn lead to a reduction in stroke volume and in the next step a reduction in VO2max.

    2. Metabolic de-adaptations - when an elite athlete stops exercising all things that are connected to the metabolic syndrome (hypertension, insulin resistance, dyslipidemia etc.) happen in a smaller scale within 4 weeks.

    3. Neuromuscular adaptations - the muscle fibre’s ability to produce force, power and high velocity movement start to decline after approximately 3-4 weeks following complete cessation of exercise.
  • There are several methods for maintaining training induced adaptations during times of for instance injury, one can do a ”same modality” sport, which are two sports that mimics one another both from a physiological and biomechanics perspective (for instance cross-country skiing and running), high intensity training is also a way of maintaining training adaptions for a long time as well as strength training (even if one can only do an exercise on one leg due to injury, the injured leg’s strength will also be improved).

Final advice

1:23:35 -

  • Strength training for endurance athletes have firm scientific evidence, it is both important from an injury preventing perspective as well as an efficiency standpoint.

    I would recommend to do 4-5 key exercises twice a week during the build up phase and later during the competitive season once a week simply for maintenance.

    Firstly I would recommend heavy lifting and few repetitions, but first it is vital to learn the correct movement, on top of this I would also like to add some plyometric work.

Rapid fire questions

1:26:25 -

  • What is your favorite book, blog or resource related to endurance sport? Endurance Training in Science and Practice.
  • What is your favorite piece of gear or equipment? My bicycles (I have four or five), my surf boards and my automatic swiss watches.
  • What is a personal habit that has helped you achieve success? Having a solid balance between intensive work, leisure time and doing a bit of exercise almost every day.


Mikael Eriksson

I am a full-time triathlon coach, founder of Scientific Triathlon, and host of the top-rated podcast That Triathlon Show. I am from Finland but live in Lisbon, Portugal.

Please contact me if you have feedback on the podcast or want to make suggestions for improvement or send in a question for a Q&A episode.

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