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Triathlete’s Expert Guide On How To Taper

Tapering can instill fear in even the most accomplished of athletes, but our comprehensive guide on how to taper is here to crack the code.

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A romp through the field of sports physiology experts and “how to taper” gurus starts and ends with this unsettling consensus: The taper is very important, yet highly individual. We can’t give specifics, but don’t screw it up.

Comforting, yes?

Put your pre-race nerves at ease. We’ve scoured the literature and quizzed top taper guides; and we’ve got a day-by-day plan that you can hold in your hot little hands through the darkest depths of those stressful pre-race weeks.

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What Is A Taper?

According to Iñigo Mujika, a sport physiologist who has extensively studied tapering and coached numerous Olympians, a taper is “a progressive, nonlinear reduction of the training load during a variable period of time that is intended to reduce physiological and psychological stress and optimize sport performance.” In other words, it’s the period right before a peak race that allows you to shed the accumulated fatigue from weeks of hard training and top up glycogen stores, while maintaining the sharp edge of that hard-won fitness so you can be your best and fastest when the gun goes off.

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Why Taper?

In a word: supercompensation. A taper lets you get more bang for your training buck. The basic idea behind training is to progressively stress your body, which adapts by building strength and aerobic fitness. But you can game that system by going to extremes. Six to eight weeks of progressively greater training load results in accumulated fatigue (as any triathlete who’s put in big training blocks knows). You’re tackling volume and intensity on already fatigued muscles. You’ve applied super stress. By easing back on the pedal, your body gets busy adapting, even after the stress has lessened. In fact, it’s supercompensating—rebounding to a higher level of fitness than if you had recovered fully after every workout. Doing this effectively after all the big training is in the bank gets you tapered for a peak performance. According to Mikael Eriksson, founder of Scientific Triathlon coaching, an effective taper can provide a 2% to 3% performance improvement—a small but significant edge. For supercompensation to kick in, though, the training load that precedes it needs to be fairly heavy. If you’re exercising only enough to finish an event, without carrying over much fatigue, then you likely shouldn’t worry about tapering at all, Eriksson said. Tapering is more about performance than completion.

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How To Taper

Unfortunately, tapering isn’t just a matter of settling into the couch, remote and snacks in hand. To strike a balance between resting and maintaining fitness, there are four variables to manipulate: taper duration, training volume, frequency, and intensity. There are also various patterns of training reduction (all in one go, linear, or exponential), and individual modifications to the amount and timing in each discipline.

First, the easy one: frequency. Numerous studies indicate it’s best to reduce training frequency minimally, if at all. If you worked out five days per week, then keep working out five days per week but make the sessions shorter. The second workout in a day may go away in the taper, but taking more days off is not beneficial. Frequent training stimulus keeps muscle memory sharp and prevents detraining.

Experts also agree that the proportion of intensity should remain the same or even increase. As you reduce the overall volume, keep the race-pace workouts—restructured into shorter intervals with more rest. For example, an interval session of 5 x 800m with a 200m jog might become 6 x 400m with 400m recovery. Coach and founder of D3 Multisport Mike Ricci recommends increasing short interval sessions from once to twice per week to “ingrain race pace.”

To preserve intensity while reducing overall volume, associate professor at University of Montreal, Guy Thibault, PhD, suggests:

• Dividing intervals into several sets
• Taking a long, inactive recovery between intervals rather than an active one
• Cutting warm-up and cool-down

Consensus is that the sweet spot of taper duration is eight to 14 days, but athletes have benefited from tapers ranging from three days to four weeks. “The optimal duration of the taper for a given athlete varies with training done before the taper (not the length of the event),” Mujika said. More intense training can lead to more performance gains, but requires a longer taper too.

Most athletes do log high volume and intensity in preparation for longer events—training blocks to prepare for an Ironman, for instance—so a three- to four-week taper is probably necessary. But an Olympic-distance race, too, might require a two-to-three-week taper if training has been particularly intense. Thibault adds that age can be a factor, noting that masters athletes recuperate more slowly and may need a longer taper.

While it may be tempting to rack up eight weeks of monster training, followed by a similarly monster four-week taper, training adaptations decay quickly without frequent training stimulus. It’s exponentially trickier to balance rest, reduced volume, necessary intensity and frequency, calorie intake, sleep, and things like confidence and race readiness in tapers lasting more than three weeks— hence why experts do not recommend it.

You also might want to figure out how to taper your run, swim, and bike training on different timelines. Ricci advocates cutting back on running first, then cycling, then swimming—because running incurs the most muscle damage. He might taper the run three weeks out for an Ironman and each other leg a week later, but for an Olympic-distance race, it would start 10 days out and progress. Mujika, however, suggested a shorter run taper for sprint and Olympic events.

When it comes to volume, there’s universal agreement that total hours and miles should be reduced by 40% to 60% over your pre-taper peak. So if you hit a peak of 10 to 12 hours per week of training, you should ultimately reduce it to four to seven hours per week. Eriksson said there’s some evidence, though, that the decrease in run volume should be kept lower, at a 20-40% reduction, and supplemented with a greater drop in swimming and biking volume.

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How To Taper More Than Once In A Season

There’s no hard data about how many taper and peak cycles can be managed in one season. The structure of a taper—a heavy training load to achieve supercompensation—is inherently stressful. Putting your body through multiple wash-n-wear cycles increases that risk.

If your target race is an Ironman, you’ll probably taper completely only once and use shorter races as stepping stones throughout the season. Tapering is more complicated, though, with frequent sprint or Olympic-distance competitions. “Ideally, you should reach a high fitness platform in the pre-season, and aim to maintain it for the duration,” Mujika said—and only taper for the events you want to be at 100%.

He estimates a taper/peak could be achieved three or four times during a season. Thibault, though, believes that athletes should not undertake more than one full taper per season. Eriksson, too, finds only one ultimate taper/peak cycle is possible. “It usually comes down to peaking for multiple sprint- or Olympic-distance races at a level just below one’s ultimate performance peak.”

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Build Your Taper Checklist

  • Reduce overall volume by 40% to 60%, though the reduction in each discipline varies.
  • Optimal taper duration is eight to 14 days; in general, more training equals longer taper.
  • Keep intensity high during the taper. Aim for one or two interval sessions per week— short and fast, with more rest.
  • Maintain about the same training frequency as pre-taper.
  • Volume should have a steep reduction in the first few days that levels off—with a slight bump (pre-race sharpening) three or four days prior to the event.
  • Ironman? That’s your season— one long build-up, one full taper. A string of sprint- or Olympic-distance events? If less than three weeks apart, taper between with plenty of intensity. If more than three weeks apart, take a few easy days, hit training hard enough to accumulate fatigue, then taper four to seven days for the next one.

How You’ll Feel

That last monster week of training, your body is maxed and you’re really looking forward to some taper R&R. It’s going to feel great, right? Yeah, maybe. But you may feel awful. Keeping your head straight while your body is taking its own mysterious route to recovery and adaptation is, by far, the hardest part of the taper.

Sluggish: That’s your body shifting from workout to recovery mode. Usually, this happens while you’re sleeping, but during the taper you’re in recovery mode all day long. Feeling sluggish is your body repairing itself.

Twinges/injuries: For weeks, your body has been flooded with stress hormones that override pain/fatigue signals and allow you to keep putting in hard sessions. When you shut off those stimuli, you notice injuries/inflammation that had been masked. Your body has identified the problem and is on it.

Fidgety: You’ve suddenly got a lot of time and energy on your hands.

What to Do About Those Feelings:

  • Accept them!
  • Objective measures like heart-rate, power, and pace can confirm your fitness is there.
  • Don’t obsess about any one workout or niggling pain.
  • If you can get them measured, lowered resting cortisol values and higher blood lactate values are indicators you’re recovering and adaptations have occurred.
  • Double down on recovery: Get a massage, foam roll, stretch gently, nap, wear compression socks, and elevate your feet above your heart for 20 minutes a day.
  • Pain during an interval session? Stop, stretch, go easy for a few minutes and try the effort again. If pain returns, you’re done with that discipline for the day.
  • Resist the temptation to test your fitness or panic train.
  • Fill spare time with race-related logistical and gear checks, and with non-race-related things like reading, cooking, and listening to music.

Related: Fitter & Faster Podcast: Mastering the Dark Art of Tapering

Your Day-By-Day Guide On How To Taper

 

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IRON/HALF-IRON DISTANCE

21 DAYS OUT: Cut back on running, specifically long easy efforts and two-a-day workouts, instead do a mid-distance (10-ish miles) run with 6-7 x 1K pickups or 10 miles total with seven miles at tempo. Maintain bike and swim volume.

19 DAYS: As you cut volume, keep shorter intervals with more rest between reps. Minimal warmup and cool-down. For instance: 6-8 x 400m one day; 5 x 1K three days later.

18 DAYS: Say goodbye to heavy weight training.

16 DAYS: Pay attention to eating well. Your energy needs are still pretty high, but that will change as you continue to taper.

14 DAYS: Start reducing cycling volume by first eliminating long easy sessions. Aim for less distance with short bursts of high-intensity or a mid-distance race-pace effort. Keep swimming, maintaining the intensity and losing any “garbage yardage.”

10 DAYS: Make sure you’re recovering fully. If you’re traveling to compete, try to get a solid week of sleep before you leave home.

8 DAYS: One-hour run at a quick but sustainable pace. Modify reductions in overall volume to your personal preference. For example, if cycling rings your bells, then do more volume on the bike and ease back further on running and swimming.

7 DAYS: Reduce swimming volume last, cut the volume this week by 40% to 60%. Plan your midweek sharpening workouts around travel.

6 DAYS: Do a thorough gear check, so you have time to fix things that need fixing.

4 DAYS: If you’re feeling flat, try Ricci’s strategy: Tuesday, run intervals, such as 3-4 x 800m or 2 x 1-mile. On the bike, on Wednesday, add in 4 x 3 minutes at 95% of FTP. Or try Mujika’s advice— bump up cycling or swimming distance by 20% to 30% over the last few days. For instance, if you’ve been biking for 45 minutes, go 55 minutes with some 30-second ventures into maximum effort.

3 DAYS: If this is a travel day, mobilize and activate your body on arrival to open everything up. Check out the course and transition areas with an easy 35-minute spin on the bike or jog with some strides. Eat safe, familiar foods, and stay hydrated.

2 DAYS: If you’re going to take a day off, this is the one—or swim out to the first buoy and check the sight lines on the way back. Eat three square meals and then some. Stay hydrated. Today’s and tomorrow’s meals are going to fuel your event.

DAY BEFORE: Early, before you have to turn in your bike, take it out for a 20-30 minute spin. Jog 10-15 minutes. Stretch gently, stay off your feet and out of the sun, imagine success. Finish dinner early, and turn in early. Don’t sweat it if you don’t sleep well; it won’t affect your performance.

*Modify volume slightly down for 70.3 event.

 

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OLYMPIC/SPRINT DISTANCE

14 DAYS OUT: If you’ve had more than six weeks of high-volume and/or high-intensity training, if this is a high-priority event, or if you’re showing signs of fatigue, then start tapering now. Reduce run volume this week by 40%. Spike a shorter run with fartlek or do a five-mile tempo.

10 DAYS: Otherwise, start tapering now. Cut back on length of runs, keep intensity. Maintain some high-volume workouts in cycling or swimming, but not both. Are you lifting? Stop—but keep mobility work.

7 DAYS: Start reducing time on the bike, but throw down some 3-5 minute bursts at 95% FTP.

6 DAYS: Do a thorough gear check.

4 DAYS: Pre-race sharpener! Choose run, bike, or swim—your favorite—and pop in 20 minutes of threshold running, or short fast swim intervals. Or try this bike session: 15 minutes easy at high cadence, 3 minutes at 70-80% FTP with last 30 seconds above FTP, 10 minutes easy, 30 seconds max effort, 5 minutes recovery.

3 DAYS: If traveling, consider compression socks and stretch frequently during the trip. Reconnoiter the course on foot or bike, or both.

2 DAYS: Run a couple miles easy, then 5 x 100m strides. Easy 30-minute spin on the bike with some 30-second build/30-second sprints. Get in the water at the time your wave will go off to see where the sun is. Swim out to the first buoy and back with a few sprints.

DAY BEFORE: Get in 30-40 minutes before turning in your bike (if you can’t rack it on race morning). Jog for 10 minutes, 3 x 100m strides. Stretch gently, stay off your feet. Eat your biggest meal of the day between noon and 3 p.m., with a smaller dinner that you finish by 6 p.m., and voila, your work is done!

*Modify volume down slightly for sprint.