One of the worst mistakes an elite athlete can make is to over-train. A long-distance runner would never run 26 miles the day before entering the Boston marathon, and a weightlifter in the Olympics would never lift world record weights the night before competition began. When undergoing an intensive training regimen for an upcoming competition, the athlete and his or her coach will often initiate a practice called tapering several days or even weeks before the event. Tapering involves a gradual reduction in an athlete's workout demands in order to allow his or her body to recover from the stress.
Tapering is not just about reducing strain on an athlete's fatigued muscles, it's also about allowing all of the athlete's systems to restore themselves after intensive training sessions. A sprinter's fast twitch nerves and muscles, for example, may need a few days of rest in order to handle the demands of the upcoming competition. A long-distance runner's slow twitch nerves and muscles, however, may take several weeks to fully recover before a race. Different types of athletes require different tapering periods, since they utilized different muscle and nerve groups in competition.
The practice of tapering is a tricky balance between a beneficial recovery period and a potentially damaging loss of fitness. A coach must be able to evaluate an athlete's fitness level after intensive training and calculate an appropriate tapering time. Generally, most athletes begin tapering anywhere from 3 weeks to 3 days before a competition, depending on the demands of the sport. Sports involving endurance or strength generally require a longer tapering period than sports involving speed or agility. Tapering does not always mean a complete break from training, but it does mean a return to a less intensive regimen.
The ideal tapering period allows the athlete to recover from the stress and strain of intensive training, but not to become out of competitive condition. Tapering is a very common practice among runners, since they do not want to be at the starting line of a race with "heavy legs" caused by over-training. Other athletes want to be at the peak of their form as the competition begins. At the elite level of athletic competition, such as the Olympic games, the difference between first and second place can literally be a matter of properly timed tapering.