Monday, March 12, 2007

The Importance of the Taper

The taper is probably one of the most important, and often overlooked, parts of any training program. However, a well put together and effective taper can make a huge difference on race day.

The taper is the period of reduced training volume before a major race. This period allows the body to fully recover (without losing fitness), so that maximum performance can be achieved during an important race. One of the biggest mistakes triathletes make when tapering is to continue doing long/slow distance work while removing all moderate to high intensity workouts. What should happen is that over a 2 to 3 week period your volume should be reduced and intensity workouts should be maintained. Due to large reduction in volume during this period, higher intensity efforts will be short in length, and performed less often.
The part of the taper that I find most frustrating is the sluggish/lethargic feeling you can get during this period. Mentally your body is telling you that you are loosing fitness. In reality this is your body adjusting to the changes you are making in your training. Often athletes are tempted to �test themselves� and end up pushing harder and longer than their plan indicates. This is where the mental discipline comes in. You need to constantly confirm for yourself that this is what needs to happen for a peak performance during the race. There is a large amount of research on the subject proving the benefits.
Depending on the importance of a race, and phase of your training program etc., a taper will usually last for between 4 days and 4 weeks. A taper of 3 to 4 weeks is normal for an Iron distance event. A good rule of thumb with an Ironman taper is to reduce the volume of your Ironman schedule by 20% each week, starting 4 weeks out from the race. This will mean that in the week before the race, you are only performing 20% of your biggest volume week. Resist the temptation to do more, and don�t fill up the extra time with other physical activity.

The theory behind the taper is that it takes your body at least 2 weeks to gain the full benefit from any training you have done. So by the last two weeks before the race, your major focus should be to allow the body to fully recover and build up energy stores for you�re A race. The training you do during your taper to keep your fast twitch muscles (which get recruited nearing the end of an Ironman when your slow twitch fibres fatigue).

Another mistake that is quite common is that an athlete will take a rest day the day before the race. Take your rest day 2-3 days before that race (possibly on a travel day for an Ironman). On the day before the Ironman complete short/easy workouts in all 3 disciplines with some short sprints to keep those fast twitch muscles firing.

In shorter distance races(sprint/Olympic) athletes sometimes respond better to a more abrupt taper (60-90% in the last week). It is important at these distances to test out your taper at a minor race prior to you�re a race. Each athlete will respond differently.
If possible always test out any changes to your strategy (taper, nutrition) prior to implementing it at an A race. For Ironman distance competitors it may be feasible to test a shorter taper at a 70.3 (1/2 IM) event earlier in the season.

Best of luck training!

Mujika, Padilla, Pyne and Busso. Physiological changes associated with the pre-event taper in athletes. Sports Med. 34(13):901-927, 2004.
Mujika and Padilla. Scientific bases for pre-competition tapering strategies. Med. Sci. Sports Exercise 35(7):1182-1187, 2003.