Monday, April 05, 2010

Taper: Why, What, How?

Tapering is on my mind this week, since I'm doing a light taper for my swim meet this weekend (a fat lot of good it will do me, since my biggest limiter is really my arm and my form, but still...), and since peaking and tapering are perhaps some of the more talked about and least understood aspects of training, I thought I'd tackle the "why, what, and how" of tapering.

When I was swimming in college, I didn't really understand anything behind the Peak and Taper cycles that we followed for big meets other than the fact that the workload seemed to increase exponentially for awhile (including our coach having us swim with one, then two or three pairs of nylons on our legs--yes, even the guys--to increase drag), and then we had this wonderful week or so of "taper" where the yardage went way down and we could eat all the pasta we wanted. Then we'd shave down (arms and everything) and arrive at the meet feeling at the top of our game. Lucky for us, the coach did all the heavy thinking about building ourselves up and when to effectively taper off and rest. Mind you this was more than twenty years ago, and exercise physiologists now have an even greater understanding of the benefits of a good peak and taper. So how do you take advantage of that?

Many triathletes, whether new or experienced fail to adequately taper for a big race. The pitfalls of tapering are many: doing too little, doing too much, tapering too long or not long enough, not including intensity, going mentally bonkers from the reduced training, resisting the urge to squeeze in one too many quality workouts. However, if you can avoid the pitfalls, the benefits are also large.

What is a Taper? 

A period of 10 days to two and a half weeks preceding your most important races where you gradually reduce both volume and to a lesser degree, intensity in your training.

Why Taper?

A training schedule that builds to a good peak and tapers effectively for an "A" race leaves you with increased fitness across a broad spectrum of measures: stroke volume of the heart, greater blood volume, higher red blood cell levels,  greater strength and power in the muscles,  a reduction in lactic acid production at peak effort, a greater ability to utilize fat for fuel combined with larger muscle glycogen stores. Additionally, you should feel refreshed and rested with your muscles no longer in a state of exhaustion or rebuilding that is common in your training cycle. In essence, you should be able to perform in your race at a significantly higher level than you've been able to achieve in training.

How Do You Taper Effectively?

For many athletes, the taper may present the biggest psychological challenge in their entire training year. This is where your mental muscle has to come into play. If you've trained effectively and built to a peak, a taper may feel like you're "not doing enough". Far too many athletes sabotage their race day performance by squeezing in one or two last workouts that are either too long, too intense, or both. Since it takes your body about 10 days to fully integrate the benefits of a workout and fully recover from that workout, training at a high workload within that ten day period is generally more harmful than beneficial.

Length: There are two general rules of thumb that apply to the length of a taper.

1) The length of the race dictates the length of the taper. An Ironman-distance race or beyond calls for the longest taper - about two and a half weeks. A sprint distance can be shorter - a week if you're a first-time athlete who is not doing a lot of intensity, 10 days if you're including more high-intensity and focused workouts.

2) The fitness of the athlete also influences the length of the taper. If you have a great base of training and are an experienced athlete, you can actually taper longer than someone with a lower fitness level. When calculating the length of your taper, erring on the side of caution is always better than trying to make sure you get one last intense brick before race day.

Workload Volume

In a 2 - 3 week long taper, reduce the total workload volume by about a quarter each week. For a 2 week taper, cut back by a third, for a one week to 10-day taper cut volume by half. When you cut back volume, it's best to cut back on the duration of each workout. Don't cut back to just doing one longer swim, bike, and run a week but maintain your normal schedule and cut the length of each workout appropriately.


This is where research has come into play - we now know that keeping some intensity in the week(s) of tapering actually helps improve your performance over just totally slacking off. This doesn't mean you slaughter yourself with intervals to keep the feeling of exhaustion that you've gotten used to in training, but within your reduced training volume keep a reasonable amount of intervals and intensity, and decrease this intensity over the duration of the taper (in other words, don't go out and hit the hill repeats three days before your race).

Basically, you want to keep the feeling of your race paces, just for shorter durations. You want to keep the feel of your swim start pace, your running turnover, your cycling cadence in these workouts, so focus your intensity wisely and include some intervals of near-maximal effort during your taper week. For instance, my swimmers this week did a main set that included four 200s at increasing intensities. Normally our main set would be twice as long with much more intensity, but by cutting back the total distance and keeping some fast swimming yardage (though a reduced amount), everyone should keep their feeling of their race pace without over-taxing their muscles.

Other Focuses

The pre-race week can be a good time to focus on the little details that might've escaped you until now. Practice transitions over and over and over. Look at the weather and at your gear, decide what to wear and try it out at the appropriate time in the morning to make sure you will be comfortable at race-day temperature. Make sure you have adequate stocks of your race-day nutrition and other essentials, firm up travel arrangements and print out those Google maps. Use some of your down time to mentally visualize a successful race. Many studies have shown the incredible benefits of positive visualization, so use this time to your best benefit by having a strong mental game.

Many athletes let the itchy not-doing-enough feeling of tapering overcome them, and you can fight this by making sure you have a game plan for your taper time.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

great refresher....thanks for the post...