Training

Triathlon Taper Tutorial

How much? When? Why? All your tapering questions, answered.

How much? When? Why? All your tapering questions, answered.  

Many endurance athletes are gung-ho when it comes to training, and when you’re in race mode, it can be especially difficult to reign it in. No one wants to risk losing months of hard-earned fitness, but by giving your body a break, you’ll give yourself the best possible chance for success.

Why do I need to taper?

We need to give our bodies a reprieve from normal training volumes to let our muscles heal and to arrive at the start line feeling as fresh as possible. As you taper, your glycogen stores can increase by as much as 15 percent—which is important considering glycogen and fat are the two primary fuel sources for endurance athletes.

How do I do it?

While you should cut back on normal training volume, this doesn’t mean you take more days off or do a lot of lazy workouts. It’s just the opposite, actually. You want to keep the frequency of your training up and add in some race-pace type training. You may want to decrease the length of your normal intervals and increase rest between the intervals. For example, let’s say you normally run 5x800m on the track with 200m easy jog recovery. During taper, you may change that workout to 6x400m with 400m recovery. You may also want to do this workout twice a week to help your race pace become ingrained. As you practice the neuromuscular movements you will perform on race day in training, they will become second nature. On the flip side, if you taper without any intensity, you will find very little increase in glycogen stores, and won’t have that race pace built into your system. The takeaway here is to train frequently, with intensity, with longer rest periods than normal. Resist the temptation to go too fast when you are feeling good during taper!

How much should I taper?

The longer the race, the longer the taper. The rule of thumb is to take your weekly volume and drop that down by 20–25 percent for each week that you taper. While an Ironman race may warrant a month-long taper, a sprint triathlon may only require a few days. There are plenty of studies that address optimal taper trends, and as you experiment with your own taper you’ll figure out the formula that works best for you.

Can I taper too much?

Yes. If you do, you’ll end up at the start line feeling sluggish. This doesn’t mean you’ll have a bad race, but it could mean you’ll have to work harder for that great race you deserve. Look back in your training log and see where you had your best workouts. This will give you a clue as to what type of workouts your body likes before it’s ready to go fast.

Shedding the fatigue of training is important, but you have to feel like you’re getting rested and fit as well. For the sprint, Olympic and half-Ironman distances, you want to practice more “race pace” simulations in training. Since Ironman is a longer event and speed is less of a factor, (for most of us) you want to show up as rested as possible, while keeping frequency high during taper. Having a good plan with workouts that build your confidence is a great way to help solidify in your mind that you’ve done the right type and amount of race-day work. With these guidelines in place you’ll set yourself up for success on race day.

What about the mental side?

Taper can be tough mentally, and the first week is usually the hardest. Don’t be surprised to see your times get slower for a few workouts before you feel “fast” again. Realize that any major workout done within 10 days of a race will not help your performance. Short, fast efforts with plenty of rest will be more beneficial.

Being cranky during taper is normal, but remember to be nice to the people who support your racing hobby.

When to wind it down

Ironman
Run: 3 weeks out; Bike: 2 weeks; Swim: 1 week
*Drop weight training 2.5 weeks out

Half-Ironman
Run: 2 weeks out, Bike: 1 week; Swim: ½ week
*Drop weight training 1.5 weeks out

Olympic
Run: 10 days out; Bike: 1 week, No swim taper
*Drop weight training 1.5 week out

Sprint
4 days out for all
*Drop weight training 1 week out

Mike Ricci is a USAT Level III certified coach and the 2013 USAT Coach of the Year. He founded D3 Multisport in Boulder, Colo.