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The process of tapering, or lowering training volume, in the lead-up to competition was developed by swimmers and track athletes looking for every last scrap of performance. The results spoke for themselves.
The standard taper varied. In general, though, sprinters tended to take as long three weeks, while endurance swimmers, for example, were inclined to take as little as one week.
Despite clear evidence that a shorter taper is most beneficial for endurance athletes, many Ironman training plans today include a full three-week taper. Ironman triathletes can blame marathon runners for this perverse development. In the 1970s, intensifying competition at the elite level of marathon racing led to a sort of arms race in training loads. Athletes kept training more and more until overtraining was the norm. It takes about three weeks for the body to recover from overtraining. Thus, the marathon runners of the 1970s had to taper for three weeks before racing just to recover from their excessive training.
For some reason, a marathon and an Ironman were deemed very similar, so the three-week taper was also adopted for Ironman racing. There are two problems with this practice. First, the three-week marathon taper is essentially just recovery time from overtraining, and by following this taper, we are assuming overtraining is the norm in Ironman preparation. More importantly, though, an average marathoner will take four hours to reach the finish line whereas an average Ironman triathlete takes 12 hours—eight hours is a big difference.
Ironman athletes would have been better off looking to ultramarathon runners for an example. Ultrarunners typically perform either a very short taper or none at all, thus falling much more in line with conventional wisdom.
To fully understand the taper and the best way to approach an Ironman, we need to look at how the body adapts to training stimuli and what we need the body to do on race day.
Let’s look at the three main components of fitness—speed, strength and endurance—and how each of these is affected by training.
Speed and Strength
Speed and strength gains are long-term projects. Gains come slowly, but with the right training program, you can develop these attributes “brick by brick” for a very long time. Developments in both of these areas require patience. One of the main causes of injury is pushing the boundaries of speed and strength before their bodies are ready.
An optimal training plan should take this into account and encourage the athlete to train in line with the body’s adaptations rather than on a time scale, as is the norm in a periodization approach.
The two big advantages of a fitness component that takes a long time to build are that it takes a long time to lose, and that it is easy to maintain with a reduced workload. It is for these reasons that sprinters can reduce their training a long way out from a race without seeing a decline in performance. In fact they experienced increased performance as their muscles achieve a highly anabolic and recovered state during the taper.
Endurance, on the other hand, is gained much more rapidly. A big factor in endurance—especially Ironman endurance—is the body learning how to burn energy more economically so that race intensity can be sustained longer. This is a primal survival trait that is deeply rooted in our genes. Because of it, if we were put in a situation where our survival was threatened due to a lack of endurance (i.e. food was scarce and we had to travel a long way to hunt), our body would adjust quickly.
This ability to gain endurance rapidly, though, comes with the caveat that we also lose it just as swiftly. This is a major reason why the three-week taper fails for Ironman. We know from experience that we start to see a decline in endurance ability within seven to 10 days.
That’s why the endurance part of training must be maintained until seven to 10 days out from race day.
In the last few weeks before a race you need to structure your training to maximize endurance and maintain strength and speed gains. You don’t need to hammer out long sessions every day to do develop peak endurance; a weekly long ride and long run are enough Nor do you need to perform a large amount of speed and strength training to maintain the speed and strength you developed earlier in the training cycle.
More specifically, this is how your training should look in the crucial last weeks before an Ironman:
Six to eight weeks out: Decrease the quantity of speed and strength work.
Six weeks out: Increase race speed-specific workouts
Four to six weeks out: Shift your focus to endurance.
Ten to 14 days out: Last endurance race-specific effort (3-hour bike/ 40-minute run).
Seven to 10 days out: Last long endurance sessions—ride and run. This is about volume, not intensity, so keep it all easy.
As you head into the final week before race day, I recommend frequent 20- to 40-minute sessions in all three disciplines. The aim here is to maintain neuromuscular pathways, which is basically the brain’s memory system of which muscle fibers it needs to activate in order to perform certain activities, and to perform those activities at certain speeds.
This memory in the brain tends to drift after 48-72 hours without stimulation, so you never want to go longer than 48 hours without repeating a single-sport training session.
These sessions are all about maintaining feel. Mix in a little speed and a little strength work To keep your nervous system primed for maximal efforts.
I don’t recommend a complete day off during the final week before an Ironman. But if you must have one, then take it two days out from the race. Most endurance athletes will feel terrible the day after a rest day, as if something is not quite right. It takes the athlete’s body a day or so to get back into the groove.
In fact, the habit of taking a rest day the day before a race is the major reason triathletes so often feel a little bit off on race day. That said, taking a rest day before an Ironman really is a personal thing, and you can only know from experience whether you gain or lose from it. You are better off scheduling a rest earlier in the week if it usually takes you a few days to feel normal again.
On the final day before the race, do a 10-minute routine in each discipline to make sure that everything is set for race day. This is a little test drive for your body but also for your race equipment—check your gears, goggles, wetsuit, etc. Once that is completed, you’re ready to go!