It seems that athletes sometimes train much harder than is necessary, and rest less than they should, especially right before important races. Take Emil Zatopek, for example. The Czech distance runner was relentless when it came to training intensity. He did not believe in running slow. In fact, he is often credited with being among the first endurance athletes to train with very intense intervals. This helped to propel him to 18 world records and five Olympic medals. In the 1954 Helsinki Olympics he won the 5000- and 10,000-meter races breaking the Olympic records at both distances. Then he decided at the last minute to run the marathon, which he had never done before. He also won it, again breaking the Olympic record.
Zatopek is often referred to as the hardest-training runner of all time. But I often use him as an example of how rest at the right time can elevate an athlete’s form.
In 1950 he was training for the European Games when he became sick shortly before the competition. He was hospitalized and spent the recuperative time in bed. Two days before the Games, which then were second only to the Olympics in status, he was released from the hospital. Against the advise of his doctors, he raced both the 10,000 and the 5,000 meters. Despite having not trained for seveal days he won both races, lapping the field in the 10,000 and winning by 23 seconds in the 5,000. In each race he ran the second-fastest time ever recorded for the distance. And this was four years before his career peak.
In a similar manner, I’ve known of athletes in a variety of sports to develop a slight injury or become sick a few days or weeks before a competition and yet have a personal-best performance. They were forced to rest. I call this the “Zatopek effect.” Sometimes the body must say “enough” in order to regain form.
Rest is a miraculous cure for doing too much in training. Left to their own devices, athletes will almost always opt to put in more volume, go faster, and train longer. They are the ultimate believers in the Puritan work ethic. Seldom do they consider the need to allow the body to “catch up” with all of the stresses.
If you’re an accomplished athlete, by whatever definition, chances are you don’t allow enough rest, especially before important races. The more important the race is for you, the longer your taper period should be. The more fit you are, the longer the taper may be. The longer the race is, the longer the taper. Races late in the season may benefit from a longer taper than those earlier in the year. Taper length also varies by sport. Running, for example, demands a longer taper than cycling since there is more trauma to the legs when training hard for running—trauma which must heal.
A bare-bones, minimum taper is about three days of greatly decreased activity. A long taper might be three weeks or more of stair-stepped training reduction - especially a reduction of workout duration and therefore volume. And don’t worry, you won’t lose your form during this rest time. You'll gain form. That's the Zatopek effect.