The Rules of Triathlon Tapering

By, Lizz Bennett

 

An athlete’s taper is just as individual, personal, and varied as their training plan.  How you taper depends on how you have trained in the months preceding your race as well as what you and your coach decide is appropriate for you. Although we all train differently, the rules to tapering remain consistent. All the months and months of proper training and nutrition is at risk of sabotage if your taper is executed improperly. Nothing you do during your taper will make you any faster for race day, but breaking the basic taper rules will prevent you from performing at your best.

  1. Proper Volume Reduction: The amount that you reduce your volume (amount of time spent weekly in training) depends on your current training volume and the distance you race. The key to effective tapering is to cut back on training volume significantly. The optimal amount of training reduction is still debatable. Some studies suggest reducing training volume as much as 85% in the weeks leading up to your race. Regardless, gradually reducing training volume should be based on the length of your race.  The longer your race, the longer your taper. Below is a basic guide, based on race distance, for decreasing training volume.

 

Race Distance

4 weeks to race

3 weeks to race

2 weeks to race

Race week

140.6

10% ↓in volume

30% ↓in volume

50%↓ in volume

80%↓ in volume

70.3

10%↓

20%↓

50%↓

80%↓

Olympic

-

20%↓

30%↓

60%↓

Sprint

-

10%↓

20%↓

50%↓

               

4 Weeks of a reduction in training volume may seem drastic, but keep in mind the amount of damage you have done to your body over the previous months. You have walked a very fine line of increased training and recovery, training hard and recovering less than is really needed. A proper reduction in training volume will allow your body to fully recover, adapt, and heal so that, come race day, you are ready to push your physical limits knowing you are ready to go!

  1. Maintain Proper Training Intensity:  A decrease in training volume has proven invaluable in getting a proper taper and being race ready. But decreasing your training intensity too soon or too drastically will cause you to lose some of the fitness you have worked so hard to achieve.  Training intensity is the key to preserving your overall fitness as well as helping you to have a good muscle tension on race day. The 2 important factors of speed interval training during your taper are to decrease the frequency of these sessions in the weeks leading up to your race and increase the rest between the speed intervals during the workouts.

 

 In the weeks of your taper incorporate at least 1 sprint session/per sport/per week. The week of your race do your sprint workout 3-4 days before your race to give you enough time to recover without the benefits waning before your race. Too long between your speed intervals and your race and your muscles will feel sluggish and heavy. Too soon and you won’t be sufficiently recovered to perform at maximal ability on race day.

 

 A good running speed interval workout, I like to have my athletes perform the week of their race, is Decreasing Sprint Sets.  This should be done following a complete warm up. On a track (alternating directions ½ way through the set) perform the following:

                2 X 400m all out efforts, followed by 2 minutes of active recovery (i.e. easy jogging)

                4 X 200m all out efforts, followed by 1:30 of active recovery

                6 X 100m all out efforts, followed by 1:00 of active recovery

Follow with a good cool down. This is a shorter workout with high intensity and longer recoveries between intervals. The benefits of this kind of workout, during a taper, extend beyond increasing blood volume and increasing glycolytic enzymes. It is a perfect way to keep the pre-race blues at bay and work off some of that anxious energy without harming your taper.

               

  1. Stick to Your Normal Diet: Proper nutrition is a discipline all on its own.  As athletes we over complicate the “carbo-loading” phase of tapering.  The truth is that carbo-loading is out dated and doesn’t need to be over analyzed, much less incorporated into our taper. If we follow our normal, healthy diet and decrease our training volume we will be storing what we need for race day. Our bodies can only store so much glycogen; whatever is left over is stored at fat. Depending on how we have eaten during our training and what race distance we are training for doesn’t determine at which point we should start eating more carbohydrates. If you start to eat too much early in your taper you will gain weight, feel sluggish, and perform below your level of ability.

 

The most important part of taper nutrition is the 24 hours leading up to your race. Here are some Do’s and Don’ts to follow.

  1. Drink plenty of fluids, especially if you are flying to your race. Keep hydrated and avoid alcohol as it messes with glycogen storage.
  2. Stick to what you know. Now is not the time to try the new restaurant in town. Avoid adding anything unfamiliar to your diet as you don’t yet know how your body will react.
  3. Avoid high risk foods. Rare steak and sushi are among the most obvious, duh…
  4. Keep it boring. Spicy foods, raw foods, high-fiber foods, gas producing foods, high fat, and high sugar foods should all be avoided the night before your race. 
  5. Don’t over eat. Sticking to a dinner of 800-1,000 calories is sufficient.
  6. Eat what you always eat before a race. If you wake up early to eat a bowl of oatmeal on long training days, wake up early and eat a bowl of oatmeal before your race.  If you wake up and toast a bagel, slather natural peanut butter on it, top it with sliced bananas, lick your lips and dive in….well… then I would highly recommend doing this on race day too! Sticking to 500-800 calories a few hours before a race is ideal for energy and to avoid swimming with food in your belly.

 

  1. Avoid Taper Tantrums: If you aren’t feeling grumpy, frustrated, anxious, extra tired, and tempted to go for a long bike ride during your taper, then you are probably not tapering correctly. These emotions are the result of a sudden decrease in training volume, a decrease in the physical and emotional outlets we have structured so carefully into our days. Add this to the race anticipation and anxiety and it’s obvious why triathletes can be so overly edgy during a taper. One minute we feel like we have no energy at all and there is NO WAY we will have the stamina to endure our 70.3, the next minute we have crazy energy and want to go do a brick that very moment! We start to doubt our training, our fitness, our goals, and the benefit of our taper.  Some ways to battle the tantrums are:
    1. Prepare the details. Get your gear laid out and ready to go. Check and double check it. I like to lay it all out days in advance. I always find something, at the last minute, that I have forgotten. Funny….it’s usually the same thing. Do you have your boarding pass? Do you have your fuel? Go through it again and again then walk away for a day and come back to it later. It might sound odd, but I also like to re-arrange it all so that I get a new perspective and not start to “see” things that aren’t really there. I’m talking GU packets, not little gnomes…course if that happens, you should be reading a different kind of article.
    2. Organize a night out with other athletes.  Talk about your upcoming races, what you’re feeling and get some advice from people who understand what you’re going through. Maybe some of them have competed in the race you’re training for and have some good advice. Surround yourself with people that are positive, fun, and share your love of triathlon. It might improve your mood.
    3. Forecast. This is a little known and under estimated tool to improve your mental focus during your race. I think it’s even more valuable during a taper to keep you focused and sane. Get with your coach and/ or a very trusted friend and talk through your race like it has already happened. Go through every detail, every possible instance and circumstance as if you are re-telling the race. Not only does this help prepare you mentally for the race, it is a great emotional tool in getting you through your taper “blues”.
    4. Put as much effort into your taper as you have into your training. Be diligent in resting and eating properly. Get a massage and focus on preventative care.  Do whatever it takes to ensure that you are fully recovered and primed for race day.

A common taper tantrum is the phantom injury. As we get closer and closer to race day we start to feel little aches and pains that weren’t there before we started our taper.  Don’t go try to run it out, avoid the need to test the nagging pain. If the pain increases with movement or exertion and doesn’t seem to be getting any better, go get it checked out. Sometimes it’s really there, sometimes it’s a little thing that we over exaggerate because we are in utter fear of getting hurt so close to our race. Be calm, ask your coach or trainer for advice and take it as it comes. More often than not it isn’t as bad as we imagine it is.

  1. Program Recovery Workouts: Within the last few weeks of your taper there should be adequate use of recovery workouts. The purpose is to help maintain the aerobic fitness you have worked so hard for! As well as help with focus, mental race preparation, and aid in recovery. The length of these workouts will vary but the effort should be well below Lactate Threshold. A good swim recovery workout, for an Olympic, ½, or IM distance race is the following: After a comprehensive warm up, add 20-30 seconds to your 100 yd. swim time and complete the following intervals. (I will use a base 100 yd. pace of 1:20 for an example). Whatever time is left in your interval is your recovery. Maintain a pace that doesn’t leave you too out of breath, you should have 15-20 seconds of recovery)

8 X 100 yd. on 1:50

4 X 200 yd. on 3:20

2 X 400 yd. on 6:40

1 X 800 yd. on 13:20

At any given point during a recovery workout, your heart rate should be 35-45 beats below LT or Zone 2-low Zone 3. You should never be out of breath and over exerting yourself.  Remember, you are recovering and maintaining your fitness for your race. Nothing you do at this point will get you faster, but if you push these recovery workouts you won’t have time to recover before race day.

Tapering for a race can be the hardest part of an athlete’s training. When training volume drops and stress is elevated, it is tough to resist the urge to train more. Remember the science behind the taper, don’t forget the value of going into a race well rested, fully recovered, and mentally prepared to take it on.  Put as much thought, planning, and effort into tapering as you did in your training. Avoid the common taper pitfalls and follow the taper rules so that when you get to your race you feel fresh and ready to do your best. 

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