Tackling the Taper

With just weeks remaining until the Brighton & Hove Triathlon, you should now be reaching the ‘business end’ of your training and progressively building towards your heavier training weeks. You’ve worked hard and had to cope with some warm weather over recent months but the end is now in sight.

As we head into September, it’s time to start planning your taper period.

This is arguably one of the most important parts of your training and can be described as a reduction in training load, designed to optimise performance. In other words, the aim is to reduce fatigue without losing any training adaptations so you arrive at the start line feeling physically and psychologically refreshed and raring to go! However, it’s not just a case of reducing your training load and putting your feet up!

Whilst there has been a great deal of research in this area, the way in which we react to the decrease in training load will be unique to us. What might work your training partner may not work as well for you – a good taper is therefore a balance between maintaining training gains and reducing fatigue. It tends to be a mix of science, gut-feeling and experience!

Having said that, there are three main aspects that you should think about when planning your taper.

Maintain intensity

Firstly, as a general rule of thumb, you should try and ensure the intensity of your training in all disciplines is maintained. If you train at a certain pace/power for your threshold/high intensity training sessions then continue at the same work rate. This will help avoid the potential for any de-training effect.

Reduce volume

Secondly, reducing your training load is important to ensure that you reduce fatigue following your final training block and optimise physiological adaptations. There are several ways in which you can reduce the training load. You can take a more linear approach where you reduce your workload by the same amount each week – i.e. 20% two weeks prior to race day and another 20% in the final week. A second approach might involve making a sudden step reduction in your training load and then maintain that reduced load throughout the remainder of your taper period. Whilst this method is often seen as the least effective, it may be suitable for some shorter distance competitions.

Finally, you can take a more progressive approach to the way in which your training load is reduced. This is generally the recommend way to approach your taper. Using this method, you should aim to reduce volume progressively over a 2-3 week period, to approximately 60% of your pre-taper volume although this is dependent on you as an individual. Some of you may need to reduce further (nearer 70-80%) depending how you feel as you begin your taper period, your overall training load and the duration of your race. As an example, an athlete training 6 to 8 hours a week may only need a slight adjustment to their training volume whereas a more experienced athlete training 15+ hours a week may need a more obvious decrease in training volume.

Maintain frequency

Thirdly, for the more experienced athletes amongst you, try to maintain the frequency of your training sessions or reduce it slightly (by approx. 20%). This also helps prevent de-training and can have psychological benefits – i.e. suddenly dropping 3 or 4 sessions a week can make you feel sluggish. However, for less experienced athletes, frequency can be reduced by 30-50% without any loss of training adaptations.

The duration of a taper period is probably the one area that tends to invoke the greatest amount of debate. Generally speaking, an optimum taper period for an event like a triathlon is likely to be ~7-14 days. Some of you may need a bit longer and so it is very much dependent on your training status and experience. It may be a good idea to keep some higher intensity efforts (with reduced volume) in the last week of your taper so you can sharpen up prior to your race. It’s also important to be aware that each of the individual disciplines will evoke a different training stimulus on the body even at a reduced volume/duration. Therefore, you may want to take a more conservative approach to your run volume in the final week or doing too many sessions in your weaker discipline.

With your training load decreasing, use the extra time to get plenty of quality sleep to help reduce the fatigue and promote adaptation.

Finally, it’s important to remember that your taper period will not produce miracles or make up for inadequate training! Tapering is usually effective but the maximum gains you can expect are likely to be around 3%.

Good luck on race day!

John Feeney is a sports scientist and performance coach with trainSharp. If you are unsure about any aspects of training or would like details of the triathlon coaching package, then email trainSharp for more information: info@trainsharp.co.uk

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