Taper time is a stressful time for endurance athletes. After months of pushing their bodies to the limit, it can feel strange to pull back on the training load. Not only do athletes worry about losing fitness, but they also tend to overanalyze everything they do during the taper.
What should I be eating? Why do I feel worse? Should I do one last long run? These are all questions you may receive from your athletes.
As a coach, your job is to ease your athletes’ minds, ensure they don’t do too much in the final few days before a race, and nail their taper. Consider the following questions which you will inevitably receive from your athletes.
What Is a Taper?
A taper is a gradual reduction in training load ahead of a race. The purpose is to reduce fatigue to ensure that an athlete is mentally and physically optimized on race day.
A good taper will foster improvements in exercise economy, blood plasma volume and enzyme activity. After a taper, athletes typically report feeling stronger, sharper and fit. The result, depending on the athlete, could mean a 1% to 6% improvement in performance (3% to 4% is typical).
What Should a Taper Look Like?
The precise structure of the taper will depend on the athlete, their training load, and the importance of the race (i.e. whether the race is an A-race, B-race, first in a series of races, etc.).
Different athletes respond in different ways to tapers. Some athletes benefit from a fairly radical reduction in training load multiple days before an event, while others race better on a less intensive taper.
Experimentation is important to determine exactly how an individual athlete should taper. Over the years, however, I’ve found the following principles to be true:
- For most, the ideal taper duration is 10-14 days.
- High-volume athletes can reduce their training load more (as a percentage of peak training load) than low-volume athletes while still performing well. This is also why we often see Ironman athletes performing a longer taper than sprint triathletes.
- Athletes who “overreached” in training or who are burnt out often benefit from a longer taper of up to three weeks.
- During the taper, workout frequency should remain the same, however the duration of each session should be reduced.
- For most athletes I work with, a ~20% reduction in training stress two weeks out and another 20% reduction in the final week works well.
- It is important athletes continue high-intensity work for the neuromuscular benefit and to avoid feeling flat on race day.
Do Different Disciplines Require a Different Tapering Strategy?
Most athletes will benefit from reducing load in all disciplines throughout the taper, though the specific nature of the reduction will vary.
For triathletes who get by on minimal swimming (for example, two to three 2,000-meter sessions each week), there is no need to significantly decrease the swim training load. There simply isn’t enough fatigue or load from which to reduce.
Similarly, triathletes who perform a consistently low training load (less than eight hours per week) across all disciplines would benefit from a shorter taper of two to three light days rather than two to three weeks.
High-impact disciplines (such as running) benefit from a deeper taper than low-impact sports (such as cycling and swimming). As an example, the longest run for an Ironman athlete should occur approximately three weeks prior to race day whereas the longest bike ride could reasonably occur two weeks prior.
It is beneficial, however, to maintain frequency across disciplines, especially in swimming and running, which are more technique intensive.
How Should the Ebb and Flow of Training Change?
Athletes should maintain the frequency of their workouts while reducing the duration of the workouts and the intervals therein. For example, if an athlete typically does 8×800 meter repeats in a workout, two weeks before race day they might do five 6×800 and one week prior three 4×800. In this way the overall intensity remains while volume decreases.
Should I Take Full Rest Days During a Taper?
It depends. An off day or two is often a good idea for athletes who are used to taking them, however, it is important to remember that an overall reduction in training volume means a day off would not be as valuable for unloading fatigue as during peak training. It is possible to unload fatigue while still working out each day so long as the sessions are light.
Rather than take complete rest days, it is often better to do very short sessions (as little as 10-20 minutes) in the few days leading into a race. This ensures athletes maintain technique and motor coordination within each discipline without accruing fatigue.
Should My Day-to-Day Nutrition Change?
With the lower training load, athletes will be burning fewer calories. If they continued to consume the same amount of food during the taper weeks, they would likely gain a bit of weight.
A pound or two is not a big deal, and it may even be a positive addition if an athlete is too lean. However, gorging on bread and pasta for two weeks in an attempt to carbo-load is counterproductive. Instead, athletes should continue to fuel themselves as they did during training but should reduce the number of calories they consume to align with the reduction in training load.
In the three days leading up to a race, athletes should slightly increase the ratio of carbohydrates to fat/protein they are consuming. This ensures that they are topping off their glycogen stores and will enter the race well-fueled (especially important for long-course racing).
Are There Other Things I Should Taper Besides Training?
Heavy mental stress negatively impacts training, recovery and racing. Minimizing life stress, if possible, in the days leading into a major race could positively impact performance.
Taking an extra day off work or aiming to accomplish stressful weekly tasks earlier in the week a few days ahead of the race will enable athletes to toe the starting line in a more refreshed and positive state of mind, positioning them for better performance.
Is It Normal to Feel Worse During a Taper?
It is not uncommon for athletes to feel down during a taper. A lower training load does unique things to the body. Less training means fewer endorphins and a possibility of feeling morose or grouchy.
A lack of activity and inward focus might also lead athletes to discover new aches and pains, leading to additional anxiousness. Especially at the beginning of a taper, many athletes report feeling heavy, slow and less fit. As a coach, you should convey that these feelings are normal and will pass.
Throughout the taper, encourage your athletes to stick to the plan and trust the process.
After a few days, when your athletes begin to feel good, it is your job to hold them back and discourage last-minute fitness tests. You want them to light the match at just the right time: On race day.