Plan Your Taper to Peak on Race Day
Updated: Feb 12
The hard work is done, the race is near and suddenly your coach says “ok, time for your taper” what?! Reduce my training load? But I will lose my fitness??!! So you decide to keep on training and skip the taper. You’ve made it to race day and you arrive already fatigued. Halfway through the race, you think “maybe I should have listened to my coach.”
What is the taper and why is it essential for successful racing?
During your training you will repeatedly stress your body then recover, which allows you to adapt to the progressive training load. Although you train and recover throughout your season you never allow your body to fully recover. Tapering is the necessary reduction in training stress that allows your body to fully recover. Tapering facilitates the body’s ability to be at peak condition for your race. Without a sufficient taper, your body will not be able to handle the high stress of race day therefore leaving your unable to perform at your best in your event.
How long should I taper?
Each athlete is unique and knowing how much to taper is dependent on many factors. There are guidelines which have been developed through the research of top triathletes and coaches. Typically, the length of taper is between 8 and 21 days. Here are some of the factors to consider when determining taper duration:
Length of race:
The longer the race, the longer the taper
The shorter the race, the shorter the taper
Training load (volume)
If you are coming off some high-volume training, your body will need more time to recover
Let’s face it, the older you are the longer it may take to recover fully
Athletes with better fitness may be able to recover more quickly, therefore, needing less taper
Ability to recover quickly
Some people just naturally have the ability to recover quickly, others do not. During your training you should try to determine your recover rate and have some idea how much time it will take you to fully recover.
Importance of the race
Perhaps you entered an event as a training race, therefore, there is no need to be at peak performance. Since this is for training purposes a shorter taper would be acceptable. In fact, for short races you may not taper at all.
How much should I reduce my training for an effective taper?
To effectively prescribe how much taper is needed, you will need to consider the 3 components that make up your training load:
Volume (amount of time spent training)
Intensity (effort level in a training session)
Frequency (number of training sessions)
Here are some guidelines I use for my athletes:
Maintain training frequency and intensity about the same as a typical week
Reduce training volume by 40% to 60%. Use a non-linear reduction in volume. Divide the taper into 3 equal time segments (ex: a three week taper will have 3 one week segments)
Segment 1: 30% reduction relative to normal training volume
Segment 2: 50% reduction relative to normal training volume
Segment 3: 60% reduction relative to normal training volume
So you may be thinking “if I taper this much I will lose too much fitness.” Keep in mind that the physiological benefits of a workout do not show up until at least 10 days after the workout. In other words, at 10 days before your race “the cake is already baked.” During your taper time, the focus should be on recovery and keeping your body tuned up and injury free. (see Coach David’s article on “bubble wrapping yourself” the weeks leading up to your event to avoid injury)
You may ask yourself “if I need to fully recover, why not stop all training the last 10 days?” A complete shut down and total rest can be as detrimental, if not worse than not tapering at all. You have been training for months, your body is accustomed training and a sudden period of zero training will cause muscles to tighten and for you to feel sluggish during the race. Not to mention how a complete shutdown will affect you psychologically. I have seen the negative effects of a complete stoppage of training first hand. One of my athletes decided not follow the taper schedule assigned to her prior to an Olympic distance triathlon, which she had done many times and had done well and even podiumed. For 7 days leading up to the event she did not train at all and consequently had a horrible race. In her race report she wrote that she felt sluggish, tight and disappointed. Her overall result was 10 minutes slower than the previous year even though she was in better physical condition.
So, for your next big race follow the guidelines described above and you should reach your race in peak shape without losing fitness.