6 Tapering with Scott Trappe, Ph.D.

My guest today is Scott Trappe, Ph.D.

Dr. Trappe is the Director of the Human Performance Laboratory and John and Janice Fisher Endowed Chair in Exercise Science at Ball State University. He received his undergraduate training at the University of Northern Iowa where he was captain of the swim team. He worked for US Swimming at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs while obtaining hisM.S. at the University of Colorado. His PhD training was with Dr. David Costill at Ball State University followed by post-doctoral training in muscle physiology with Dr. Robert Fitts at Marquette University. For the past 20 years, he has been working with NASA to help optimize the exercise prescription for astronauts.  His work has also been supported by the NIH. Concurrent to the work with NASA, he’s conducted exercise training studies in older adults, aging athletes and various college and elite athletes. Using a whole body to gene approach, he and his colleagues have gained a better understanding of muscle plasticity. He is an expert in the area of adaptations to training and to disuse - or detraining. And, he joins us today to talk about that plasticity, specifically in the area of balancing training with detraining as it may apply to tapering.

In today’s episode Dr. Trappe and I talk about training adaptations, then detraining, then put those together to come to some conclusions about the tapering period where we try to balance these.

The questions I posed to Dr. Trappe include:


  1. Genetics. There was a belief that genetics provide each person with a particular range of possibility and that there is a limit set by those genetics for each person such that one person’s maximal potential may be below another’s lower spectrum. Is that correct and to what degree do genetics compare with training for our endurance capacity.
  2. What is the time-course for the various adaptations: capillarity, mitochondrial capacity, power, neuromuscular control, etc.? [for clarity, capillarity is the density of capillary blood vessels within skeletal muscle - which is important for oxygen and nutrient delivery ; mitochondrial capacity is the sum of the tools a cell uses for generating ATP while utilizing oxygen] - it will vary based on the volume and intensity but we talk generally about the components.
  3. What components continue to develop over years of training and what components of adaptation to endurance are maximized, if any, relatively early (like in the first year or so of regular serious training) - e.g., we don’t continue increasing capillarity indefinitely.
  4. Training prescriptions are often designed so that a given hard day of training is maximized while still low enough in density so that the next training day (perhaps 2 days later) can be completed with equivalent volume/intensity. How do we optimize this - there is a spectrum - steady runs every day vs very hard one day that takes many days to recover from…how do we plan for the balance so that we are making the fastest, steady gains in endurance capacity?
  5. Some prescription plans cycle three weeks increasing in density (volume or intensity or combination), then back off for a week, then start over with a little increase. Graphically this might look like three steps up and one down, repeat. How does this approach compare to backing off slightly in those three weeks and not stepping down in the fourth week - evening out the 4 weeks so that there is a persistent increase in training density over time. Any benefit of one approach over the other?
  6. Cross-training: physiologically useful or can we get more out of staying 100% sport specific and tailoring the workouts carefully (to avoid injury and boredom)?
  7. When we evaluate training, the goal is to maximize adaptable stimulus and provide sufficient environment for adaptation. To what extent do easy days (recovery runs) layer onto the stimulus for adaptation: is there a stoking effect that keeps the stimulus maintained until the next tough workout OR do recovery runs somehow promote a more beneficial adaptation environment - where do recovery runs sit in the balance equation of stimulate/adapt? …what do we know about the specific mechanisms of the benefits of easy days (recovery runs) between hard workouts?


  1. For an endurance runner with capacity X or Y, what is the minimum stimulus required to maintain what they’ve developed; surely this varies for the different components from neuromuscular coordination and control, through muscle bioenergetics…but what do we know about maintaining capacity?
  2. Trail running, and many or most ultra marathons are on trails, require both endurance and an endurance in power - due to the elevation changes, both up and down hills. Are these capacities different from a muscle tissue perspective…flat ground endurance vs mountain hills endurance? Do those capacities detrain differently?

Balancing Training Adaptation with Detraining

  1. Promoting recovery while resisting losses is the fundamental issue at play in the period called tapering. Whatever you call it, it is the final days or maybe weeks as we approach a key race or event. What are the best practices for tapering for endurance events - what works, what doesn’t?
  2. Recovery required from races - 50k-100mile+ all can take a substantial toll on muscle tissue both structurally and functionally. When muscle is trashed - not a lot has been studied in the specific context of ultra marathons but we do know about repeated eccentric loading [eccentric is contraction while a muscle is lengthening - as is required of the quadriceps while running downhill] - what elements of muscle function recover the fastest and what takes the longest to recover?
  3. Considerations for races in quick succession (e.g., 100k-100mile 4-6 weeks apart, or 50k 2-3 weeks apart)?

We wrap up with two specific questions:

  1. What are the biggest mistakes that Dr. Trappe sees distance runners make in their tapering plans?
  2. What three key messages of advice does Dr. Trappe have for ultra marathon runners with regard to tapering?

Should ultra runners use standup desks at work?