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Two expert coaches help crack the code.
While there’s plenty of research on the subject, tapering for tri is as much art as it is science. Many athletes and coaches will tell you that it can take some trial and error depending on a number of factors. For some athletes, a quick and severe taper works best, while others respond more favorably to a longer, drawn-out taper. Either way, the goal is the same.
“It’s a balancing act,” says Jesse Kropelnicki, a Massachusetts-based coach who works with top-level triathletes. “The purpose of a taper is to try to wipe out the fatigue, but not lose fitness in the process.”
Coach Matt Dixon, author of Fast-Track Triathlete and host of the Purple Patch Podcast, adds, “A taper is centered around rejuvenation and sharpening to allow your best training sessions to be expressed on race day. You can only do this if you’re rested and fresh, but also sharp.”
Indeed, a taper that is too long can leave an athlete feeling at and lethargic on race day. On the other hand, a taper that is too short often translates into fatigue at the start line. To make matters more complicated, there’s no one-size- ts-all prescription.
Kropelnicki’s tapering schedule is based off of three main factors: (1) training volume of the athlete, (2) race distance relative to the athlete’s training volume, (3) the athlete’s physiology. He says that physiology is important to consider because athletes who are more anaerobic tend to respond better to a longer taper, while a shorter taper works better for athletes who are more aerobic. If you prefer a 10×400 workout on the track to a 2-hour run, you’re probably more anaerobic. If the long run is your bag, you’re likely more aerobically inclined.
Dixon says that he often has his athletes do anywhere from a 10-day to three-week taper for half-iron to iron- distance events, but for athletes training for Olympic-distance and sprint events, the taper can be as short as three days.
“In those cases, we ensure the seven days prior to the three days of rest is normal training, but just nothing integrated that will create a serious reservoir of fatigue,” he explains.
While he says that both the three-day and three-week tapers are effective depending on the circumstance, he warns on trying to split the difference.
“Our simple rule of thumb is that we either rest athletes three days or more than 10 days. A seven-day rest will leave most athletes in a phase of recuperation and lethargy,” Kropelnicki says. “It’s highly individual and an art, but the key is to limit surprises. The rhythm of training going into a race should be similar to the rhythm of regular training progression.”
Stick to your pre-planned taper.
Minimize stress in all areas of your life.
Emphasize adequate sleep.
Tailor your workouts to be race-specific in terms of pace and terrain.
Take two easy days before your race, but keep moving to stay loose.
Plan any big events or try any new activities or workouts.
Cram extra workouts in.
Push yourself to the point of extreme fatigue.
Scale back volume and intensity so much that you feel flat.
Overlook how everyday stress can contribute to fatigue.