Whether you are preparing for your first triathlon or you are nearing the major competition of your season, understanding the basics of the pre-race taper will insure all your hard training pays off. Here is an easy to follow guide and some insider tips to make sure you hit the jackpot.
When to Start
The taper begins immediately after the highest mileage portion of your training cycle. Assuming that you have been following a periodized training program where you have built up your training with successively higher workloads followed by short periods of recovery, the taper represents the final phase or cycle leading into race day.
Coming off your peak training cycle or a tune-up competition, the typical taper will take 3 weeks, but may be as long as 5 weeks or as short as 1 week. Things you may need to consider in adjusting the length of your taper include the volume and intensity of your pre-taper training, genetic characteristics that may cause you to recover faster or more slowly from heavy training and factors such as injuries or illness.
Tip: Use a tune-up race, 3-5 weeks out, to complete your final pre-taper training cycle.
Major Goals of the Taper
The three major goals of the taper are to maximize efficiency, optimize function and add fuel leading into the major competition of the season.
The taper is a great time to focus on good swim stroke mechanics, proper cycling cadence and a smooth efficient running style. In the water, make sure your shoulders and hips are rotating along the long axis of your body so that the larger, more powerful muscles of your torso are doing the work. Minimize lifting your head so you can keep your hips high and reduce drag.
Check that you are cycling at your most efficient cadence, usually around 90 rpm. Use this period of lower volume to practice your T1 and T2 transitions and include 2-3 bike/run or swim/bike/run workouts each week. Practice getting out of the saddle ahead of your T2 transition so that you can stretch your hip flexors and come out of the transition running fast and strong. Running efficiently means you have a relaxed arm swing and minimal head bobbing.
Tip: Prepare to run fast by getting out-of-the-saddle as you near the bike/run transition.
If you have been training through a minor injury or fighting a cold, this is the time to let yourself recover completely. Your goal is to be pain free and feeling 100% before the race.
Adjust Volume and Intensity
Drop your training volume by 20% in the first week of your taper. In week 2 drop another 20% and in the final week before race day cut back another 20-25%.
As you cut your distance back pay attention to staying relaxed and efficient. There is no need to hammer these workouts but include some race pace work in each session. Aim for 20% of your training at race pace. The effort at race pace should feel comfortably hard.
For example, if your typical big midweek run is 20km, during the first week of your taper cut back to 16km and include 3-4km at race pace. During week 2 shorten the run to 12km with 2-3km at faster than race pace. Adjust your swim, bike and bike/run workouts in the same fashion, reducing volume while focusing on being fast and efficient.
Tip: Follow the 20/20 rule by reducing volume by 20% each week and doing 20% of your training at race pace.
Storing additional glycogen in your muscle tissues will allow you to maintain a higher intensity for a longer period of time. Glycogen stored in the muscles is measured in millimoles per litre (mmol/L). Endurance trained athletes will typically store 80-120 mmol/L. Since the 1960s, several different experimental protocols have been successful in raising glycogen levels above 150 mmol/L. Some of these protocols, commonly known as carbo loading, had unpleasant side effects such as bloating and fatigue, which didn’t do much for an athlete’s confidence leading into a big race.
More recently, a study at the University of Western Australia has developed a much easier and effective protocol that you can use during the final week of your taper. Continue with your normal diet and light training throughout the final week. Your training volume should be only about a third of your pre-taper level. 1-2 days before the race perform a regular 10-20 minute warm-up followed by 3 minutes of running or cycling at maximum effort and then a warm down.
Over the next 24-48 hours consume a diet rich in relatively high-glycemic-index carbs such as white rice, macaroni and cheese, apple juice and sports drinks. The UWA study found muscle glycogen stores of nearly 200 mmol/L using this method, a nearly 90% increase over normal levels.
Tip: 3 minutes of sprinting followed by 1-2 days of high carbohydrate diet will nearly double the usable energy stored in your muscles.
While most athletes will feel energetic and excited as they cut back their training, some athletes find the taper to be a nerve racking experience. As they back off on the volume and intensity that has gotten them this far they start to second guess their strategy. If you are having trouble relaxing make an effort to fill the void and be positive. Start a new book, rent some movies, get together with friends and think about past races that you’ve enjoyed.
Tip: Recall successful races from your past in as much detail as possible. Think about who was there, what was the weather like and something funny or unique about the day.