My non-athletic roommate in college once claimed quite proudly, “Yeah, I’d go on a run with you, but I’m still tapering. It’s been a 10-year taper so I’m gonna be super-fast once it’s over.” Sadly I don’t think he understood the science nor the art of what tapering really is.
Unfortunately, many triathletes are in a similar boat. We’re often guilty of equating tapering simply to the word “rest.” But rest can mean a lot of things to a lot of different people. For some, tapering is quitting training altogether before their A race (not smart). For others, it’s training at a consistent volume but going easy for every workout. For others still, it’s perhaps a guess, like skipping every other day hoping that this strategy will give them maximal recovery.
If you’re unsure of how to most effectively taper for your next triathlon, you’re in the right place. Here are the five steps to your best triathlon taper:
Step 1: Reduce Volume
The most important rule legitimized by triathlon tapering science is that a reduction in training volume positively affects the body’s recovery process before race day. In fact, even a drastic reduction in training two to three weeks before the race will not necessarily negatively affect your fitness and may be needed to produce the best results.
According to exercise physiologist and writer for Triathlete Magazine, Tim Mickleborough, Ph.D, “With few exceptions, the physiological benefits of a workout don’t show up until at least seven to 10 days after the workout, at which point the body has rebuilt itself even stronger.” Therefore, a long, endurance workout within 10 days prior to a big race is rather pointless. You won’t be reaping the benefits until the race is over.
There’s a lot of discrepancy as to how and when to reduce volume leading up to competition. However, the research supports three main types of triathlon tapering:
- Linear taper: A steady decrease in volume linearly week by week.
- Step taper: A sharp decline in training load and then a consistent hold in that training volume for the duration of the taper.
- Exponential taper: A reduction in volume that exponentially becomes less and less as race time draws near.
The length of your triathlon taper will depend on what you’re training for. Sprint triathlons are typically a one-week taper. Olympics are one to two. Half iron is typically two weeks while full iron is two to three.
It’s best to consult your coach as to what length of taper is best for you. Overall, don’t worry about losing fitness when decreasing volume. You’ll be fine maintaining endurance and speed as long as you refer to the next step.
Step 2: Maintain Intensity
While reducing volume is important, equally vital is NOT reducing intensity. The body needs to recover from the heavy load of triathlon training you’ve been weighing on it but must continue to perform well in neuromuscular terms.
Maintaining training intensity allows you to keep fitness and ensure muscular elasticity and neuromuscular activation while experiencing fast recovery times due to the decrease in training load.
Step 3: Adjust Interval Training
While intensity should be maintained, the structure of your workouts should change. This means decreasing the number of intervals and time working in each and increasing the amount of rest in between.
For example, if a common threshold workout mid-training had been a two-hour ride with 5×10’ at Z4 with 3’ rest in between each, then an adjusted taper workout might look like this: 4×5’ at Z4 with 5’ rest for a one-hour ride.
Step 4: Nutrition Right with Your Taper
According to expert triathlon nutritionist Bob Seebohar, the right nutrition taper doesn’t start until one week before the race. This is when carbohydrate loading begins. Seebohar suggests that from days 4-7 before race, you should “eat at least five grams of carbohydrate (20 calories) per kilogram of body weight.” The last three remaining days eat up to 10 grams (40 calories) per kg.
All the while you should be gradually increasing your sodium intake. Be generous with the saltshaker and in the last three days drink more sodium-rich sport’s drinks than water throughout the day. To see all of Bob’s tips on the best nutrition taper, check out his article on Beginner Triathlete here.
Step 5: Optimize for You
Let’s not forget that triathlon is an individual sport. What works for one may not work for another. Therefore, selecting one of the types of triathlon tapering mentioned in Step #1 will depend on your level of experience, current fitness, and race distance.
Generally speaking, the higher volume of training you’ve done leading up to the taper, the longer your taper should be. For example, if you’ve only been training five to six hours a week, your taper will probably only be one week with hardly a decrease in volume. Been training 18 hours a week for an IRONMAN triathlon? You’ll want to shoot for a two to three week taper and reduce volume pretty dramatically over this duration before your big day.
Fitter triathletes typically do better with an exponential taper that reduces volume very gradually at first and then dramatically for the final week.
Less experienced athletes may want to stick with a linear or step approach. Reduce volume by 20-40 percent each week or by 60 percent right at the start of the taper and then maintain with the newly reduced training load.
Once again, work with your coach to ensure an intelligent drop-off in training volume and maintenance of an intensity level that makes sense for you based on your background and your goals.
Follow the five steps to your most effective triathlon taper by reducing training volume, maintaining intensity, adjusting interval structures, nutritioning correctly, and optimizing for your strengths and weaknesses.
TALK WITH TRIDOT:
How do you taper? Have you employed any of the methods described for your race recovery?
JARED MILAM is a professional triathlete, TriDot coach, and member of the Tri4Him Pro Team. He has 16 years of competitive running experience and 11 years of competitive triathlon experience with a half Iron PR of 3:59 and a full Iron PR of 8:30. Coaching under the TriDot system since 2011, Jared loves working with aspiring triathletes of all ages and performance levels.
Mickelborough, Tim. “Athletes, experts consider the best ways to taper.” Active. Active Network, LLC., n.d. Web. 25 June 2016.
Seebohar, Bob. “Training for an Ironman: Nutrition.” Beginner Triathlete. Beginner Triathlete, 24 May 2004. Web. 25 June 2016.
Watson, Lance. “Choosing the Best Taper for Your Next Triathlon.” TrainingPeaks. Training Peaks, LLC. 15 June 2015. Web. 25 June 2016.
“How To Taper For Triathlon Racing.” Intelligent Triathlon Training. Mark & Rhona Pearce, n.d. Web. 25 June 2016.