How to Taper Your Training to Guarantee Peak Performance

Exercise Fight Preparation MMA Recovery Training

How to Taper Your Training to Guarantee Peak Performance

By PJ Nestler

All the phases of an athlete’s training and preparation are aligned around the ultimate goal of peak performance on fight night.

But there’s something about the final week or two before competition that is unlike any other. By this point, the weeks of intense training have taken their toll, and an effective transition from hard sparring to lighter workloads and cutting weight is what will enable a fighter to recover from a hard training camp. Managed properly, this final five- to twelve-day tapering period will leave a fighter feeling strong and confidant. If this time is misused, months of work may be at risk.

While each fighter and fight camp is unique, here are five elements to consider to ensure peak performance on fight night.

1. Specificity

    At this last stage of training, specificity is essential. Everything an athlete does should mimic the demands of the competitive event. Duration, pacing, intensity, and strategies should be in sync with exactly what the fighter will see on fight night. This is not the time to be sparring six rounds if the fighter is prepping for a three-round fight. The pacing and fatigue experienced in six training rounds is vastly different than three.

    Specificity physically prepares an athlete to perform at peak levels while building confidence and trust with his or her coaches.

    2. Risk vs. Reward

      All training, from the weight room to the mat, has risks and benefits. The goal for each athlete and coach is to find balance between showing up healthy and being physically prepared for battle on fight night.

      In mixed martial arts, the most common training debate revolves around sparring. In my experience, by the time the tapering period rolls around, a professional fighter should have done enough full-contact sparring to acquire the skills, techniques, and sensorimotor abilities to be ready to fight.

      Professional football players and rugby athletes don’t practice full-contact scrimmages a week or two out from the most important competition of the year—but this behavior is prevalent in the world of MMA. As a result, many fighters are forced to pull out of fights less than two weeks out due to injuries sustained in sparring.

      Consider the risk and reward for each training session and modify your approach accordingly.

      How to Taper Your Training to Guarantee Peak Performance

      3. Weight Training

        Strength and conditioning is essential to prepare a fighter for success in the cage. But by the tapering period, most weight training should be complete.

        Instead, the focus needs to change to recovery and maintaining gains. Any exercises chosen should be short duration, high velocity, high quality, and low volume. A few dynamic reps across a few movement patterns should be all the athlete needs to maintain the motor abilities developed during and before training camp. An injury in the weight room during this point of camp is unacceptable and must be avoided at all costs.

        Sample workout:
        • A1: Reactive Jumps 3x4
        • A2: MB Throws 3x4
        • B1: Banded Speed Split Squats 3x4ea
        • B2: Thoracic Mobility 3x10ea
        • C1: Landmine Banded Explosive Punch 3x5ea
        • C2: 90/90 Hip Mobility Series 3x5
        Post Workout: Do recovery breathing and take an evening recovery bath of choice (Epsom, hot, cold, or contrast).

        4. Recovery

          Recovery is as important as any other aspect of training—and often gets overlooked. As training volume decreases toward the final stage of fight camp, specific recovery or regeneration strategies should become the focus. Hot/cold or contrast therapy, massage, and breathing exercises that hopefully have been used throughout fight camp should be continued.

          Repairing damaged tissue, sleep and optimum nutrition all contribute to maintaining the gains made over the past several months and help an athlete feel his or her best on fight night.

          How to Taper Your Training to Guarantee Peak Performance

          5. Weight-cut Workouts

            With pounds to lose, fighters often need extra workouts to aid in weight cutting. At this point in the fight camp, though, fighters have also significantly decreased their caloric intake. Hunger adds an additional element of stress with competition day near. So, the goal is to expend as little energy as possible while losing weight.

            Weight-cut workouts should involve low intensity, low-impact, aerobic-style exercise—such as biking or swimming. These activities burn calories and body fat while minimizing impact on joints.

            Sample workout:
            • Steady-state bike workout: 35-45 minutes
            • Keep heart rate between 130-150 BPM

            Putting It Together for Peak Performance

            The final stages of fight camp come with a unique set of challenges. With a clear picture of what to avoid and some basic strategies for optimized training and recovery, athletes will have an increased chance of success.

            Keep in mind the principles of specificity, the risk of injury, and the importance of recovery, as you create a plan the final weeks of fighter prep. Consider each workout and how weight cutting will impact the athlete.

            Above all, do your best to make sure your athlete is getting everything they need to feel prepared and to achieve peak performance. These guidelines will help ensure a fighter enters the cage feeling great, mentally focused, and ready to go.


              1. Loon, Luc J C van, Paul L. Greenhaff, D. Constantin-Teodosiu, Wim H M Saris, and Anton J M Wagenmakers. "The effects of increasing exercise intensity on muscle fuel utilisation in humans." The Journal of Physiology. Blackwell Science Inc, 01 Oct. 2001. Web. 20 Mar. 2017.
              2. Issurin, V. (2001). “Block Periodization: Breakthrough in Sport Training.” New York, NY: Ultimate Athlete Concepts.
              3. Rotella, Robert J., and Bob Cullen. "How Champions Think: In Sports and in Life." New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2016.

              Photo 1  (CC BY-SA 2.0) by andriuXphoto.

              PJ NestlerPJ Nestler is a human performance specialist with over a decade of experience preparing top athletes for competition. He is on a life mission to help athletes and coaches realize their true potential.

              Over the past ten years, Coach PJ has trained dozens of athletes from the UFC, NFL, NHL, and MLB. His passion for combat sports and commitment to excellence has driven him to become a leader in combat sports performance training. He has worked extensively with over one hundred fighters, including multiple Brazilian jiu-jitsu world champions and top ten ranked UFC fighters.

              Outside of training top athletes, Coach PJ is devoted to sharing his knowledge and experience, with the purpose of elevating the fitness profession. He continues to raise the bar for fitness professionals and has emerged as a sought-after expert in human performance and trainer education.

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