I've found that the taper cycle is one of the most misunderstood aspects of periodization. Tapering is the phase or cycle in which we setup and prepare our body for our main event. The training is over and now it is just time to maintain our fitness level and allow our body to rest, recover from some minor injury and finalize absorbing the training load. Since we can only peak so many times a year (for most athletes in general no more than a few times) it is important to plan and follow our schedule to increase our chances to achieving that. IMO there are 3 things to consider in order to be able to plan the best tapering time and approach: consistent total training load performed over the past 6-8 weeks, type of training load mix and current fitness level
1st of all, you need to consider the total training load over the past 6-8 weeks (curing the specific week). Usually around this period is when we tend to train the most prior our main event; depending on your fitness and goals the hours of training will vary, but in general the more hours you trained the longer your taper might need to be. And athlete who on avg trains 10 hrs x wk then average 14-18 hrs of training during the specific/peak cycle will stress their bodies a lot more of what they are used to hence will need to make sure to recover from that. OTOH some training for short distance events my avg 8 hrs x wk and average 10-12hrs during the specific/peak cycle then might not need to spend as much time tapering.
2nd you have to consider the training load mix you’ve followed over the past 6+ weeks during the specific training phase. Those training for IM will need more specific training via long steady efforts, those doing a HIM will required more Tempo sessions and those going for Oly or shorter will require more threshold sessions. This important to consider because of that type of training plus our body’s physiology each athlete will recover at different rates. Some people are able to cope with a lot of volume but as soon as they have a hard quality session they require a longer time to recover from it. OTOH, other athletes can handle more hard quality sessions but when the volume increases it takes longer for them to recover.
3rd you also need to consider your current fitness level and the ability of your body to recover from training load, this means how fast your body can bounce back from a lot of training (volume) and hard training (intensity). Those with better fitness tend to be able to absorb and recover faster from training and the rate at which they lose fitness if they stop training completely is slower. i.e. an athlete might be able to be fully recovered from an intense week (high volume and 3-4 high quality sessions) within 5-7 days of easy/low volume training while another one with better fitness might recover within 3-4 days. Of course less fit athletes will take longer. Also if the fitter athlete was forced to stop training today his/her fitness (training adaptations) achieved in training will last be lost much slower than someone with inferior fitness
How to put all together? Considering all of the above, keeping a log to learn/analyze your training and with the experience you've gain over training then you’ll know how fast you recover from x or y training intensity, you should know how fit you are, what type of load mix you followed over the past 6-8 weeks and how long it takes until you begin to lose fitness after no training at all. With that info then you can come up with the best possible taper cycle in order to get to your main event recovered and with your fitness near its peak.
2 issues I see often on athletes training plans:
· Generic plans advise x number of weeks for taper following a conservative approach because the taper schedule is not specific to the athlete. Since all athletes are different while this might work for some, it might work against others. (let's not discuss about the coaches who doesn't even kow how to schedule a taper cycle ;-))
· The type of training advised during the peak week; some advise short hard quality sessions, while others advise easy low intensity sessions. Again as I mentioned many factors will determine what’s better for you and since you are not trying to increase your fitness but to maintain it, the type of sessions you schedule my benefit or affect you.