You’ve put in all the hard training, now the key for race day is to get your taper for triathlon just right.
Training as hard as you can right up to race day will not result in your best performance.
You need to allow yourself time to recover from training in order to achieve optimal performance.
The opposite of hard training - complete rest - is no good either. So how do you get those final few weeks leading up to your race just right? The key is what is called ‘tapering’.
Tapering is basically when you reduce your training load over a period of time leading up to an important race.
The aim is to recover from training fatigue (both mental and physical) and maximise your physiological adaptations to the training you’ve been doing. An effective taper has been shown to improve performance by up to 6% in well-trained athletes.
There has been a fair bit scientific research into tapering, yet it is still an area that is not fully understood.
Not much research has been carried out on endurance events lasting 2 hours or longer (so no specific research on the best taper for triathlon), and there is a limited understanding of the physiological, neuromuscular and biomechanical factors involved.
So getting your taper right is still a combination of art and science, and it is quite possible that you will come across different opinions and views about the best taper for triathlon.
The main types of taper for triathlon that are commonly used and have been researched are:
There has been research to support the effectiveness of each type of taper with different athletes from different training backgrounds and different sports.
So in practice it is a case of working out which best suits you and your training circumstances.
An exponential taper with a fast reduction in training load gives more time for overcoming fatigue from your last intensive training phase and has been suggested to be the most effective taper.
Mathematical modelling has suggested that this sort of taper, followed by building your training back up again after a period of time in the final run-in to the race could optimise performance.
The main goal of a taper for triathlon is to reduce your training load. Reducing your training load involves manipulating the type, frequency, intensity and duration of your training.
Reducing your training volume (ie the amount of training you do) will seem quite obvious to most people, however many triathletes fear losing fitness by doing this.
Overall however, the research indicates that reducing the volume of training has a much bigger impact on performance than manipulating any of the other training variables, such as intensity or frequency.
Indeed maintaining intensity has been shown to be key. Maintaining training intensity provides enough stimuli to prevent losing fitness, and allows you to maintain feeling for race pace. It also ensures muscle elastic properties and neuromuscular activation are not impaired.
Based on existing research, the most effective taper for triathlon appears to be one that starts 2 – 3 weeks before the race.
During this period a 40 – 60% reduction in training volume should be incorporated (following a progressive, non-linear format – ie start off with a 40% reduction in training volume and gradually drop this off more and more), whilst maintaining training intensity and potentially including a small (~20%) reduction in training frequency.
In general the higher the volume of training you have been doing the longer your taper can afford to be.
If you are fairly new to triathlon and have not got much of a training background (eg you have done around 300 hours of training per year or less – which works out at an average of 5 to 6 hour per week), then your taper should be fairly short – around 1 week.
Because you are not doing a high volume of training, you shouldn’t be very fatigued, and so you shouldn’t need very long to recover. Also, if you were to reduce training volume for 3 weeks you would start to lose fitness due to not having a significant training background.
If you have a good training background and are have been averaging about 10 hours training per week, then you can afford to have a longer taper – around 2 – 3 weeks.
Regardless of how long your taper lasts, you should reduce the volume of training but still maintain the intensity of sessions. In other words reduce the duration or frequency that you train but keep the training at the same pace/intensity as you have been – not lower and not higher intensity.
Generally this would mean training at race pace, but you would have longer recovery between intervals during your taper than you would normally, and fewer intervals. Don’t be tempted to do a hard session to prove to yourself that you are in good shape – have confidence that all the training you have done has worked!
For swimming you may have to reduce the volume by more than 50% as you are likely to have local muscular fatigue more than in the other disciplines.
As swimming is such a technical event you will need to gauge how much you need to keep doing to maintain your technique and ‘feel’ for the water.
If you are training and racing at a high level, then your taper could start with a few days of rest, before gradually building your training back up again. The rationale is that you would be able to take advantage of the being fully recovered to enhance training tolerance and respond effectively to the training done at this time.
As mentioned earlier, getting your taper right is a blend of art and science.
So whilst you can use the principles above, you will need to play around with the exact details of your training to get it right for your key race.
Most triathletes will want to peak for 1 – 3 key races per year. You can use an early season race to practice your taper for your key race(s). For all other minor races, a day or two of rest and some light training for a day or two before the race should be enough.
Don’t worry if you feel lethargic during your taper. This is quite common, particularly if you are used to doing a high volume of training. This doesn’t mean you need to up your training though. This period of recovery is important for you to perform well on the day!
During the last week or so before your key race it is a good idea to practice your transition skills.
With the key aim of your taper being to maximize your adaptations to the training you have done and also recover from this training, you should pay particular attention to your recovery from each session during your taper. This is a time when ice baths can play a key role.
Also, ensure your nutrition is good during your taper for triathlon so that (particularly for the longer events) your carbohydrate stores are nice and full.
Lastly, check out the race course so that you know what to expect on the day. Have a look at our guide to race day for lots of tips to help you with your final preparations.