photo credit: David Pintens with Uplace-BMC Triathlon Team
When every workout seems critical to success, nothing bothers competitive triathletes more than days off before a big race. That’s because as athletes we tend to focus more on the months of training leading up to the race, not the critical time right before race day. However, using a taper, or period of scaled back training, can hone this hard fought performance into race day sharpness.
Yet despite the well established benefit of tapering, it’s often the psychological component of tapering that’s the hardest. The thought of losing fitness can sometimes overcome rational thought and push triathletes to train hard to the bitter end. But beware, pushing all the way to race day often leaves an endurance athlete fatigued rather than fit, especially considering the physiological changes elicited from a workout aren’t seen for at least 7-10 days. Squeezing those workouts into the time leading up to the race won’t make you faster, but the fatigue elicited from those efforts.
The primary goal of the taper is to optimize race performance and the process of tapering involves a reduction in training in the weeks leading up to a big race. A review study in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise described the goal of the taper, as “The main aim of this training phase is to reduce accumulated fatigue, rather than achieve further improvements fitness gains.” The psychological and physiological changes can be significant, resulting in an average 3% improvement in performance. Commonly, those gains are even greater. For highly trained athletes, that could be a spot in Kona.
However, while experts agree that a taper is helpful prior to a race, there isn’t universal agreement on how to taper. The controversy stems from what part of training to cut back, intensity, volume, frequency or some combination of the three. What’s more, when should triathletes start the taper?
Now while it seems that research on the question raises more questions than it answers, the solution boils down to intensity. The key to a successful taper is maintaining the intense efforts that simulate race pace. While studies have shown that reducing the volume and frequency of training (time spent training and days/week) doesn’t result in reduced performance, cutting the intensity of training does matter.
When recovery is the goal, it would seem the ideal taper would include a reduction of intensity. Not so, as the majority of research indicates that intensity is the critical factor that maintains fitness during any period of reduced training. Consequently, any successful taper must include higher intensity workouts. Of course the length of high intensity intervals can decrease and rest between intervals increase but the overall intensity should remain high.
Just as intensity seems the critical parameter that must be preserved, volume is the factor that should be reduced to allow for recovery. Large decreases in volume can be made without a loss in performance as long as intensity is maintained. A 2007 study by French and Canadian researchers concluded that for triathletes, optimal results were obtained with a 40 to 60 percent reduction in training volume with no change in exercise frequency and intensity.
While the effects of training intensity and volume on performance during the taper period are generally clear, greater controversy lies with the importance of frequency. It does seem that performance gains can be maintained with a decrease in frequency. The greatest risk of diminished frequency, especially among more trained triathletes, appears to be a loss of technical feel. Given this, most recommend no greater than a 20 percent reduction in the frequency of workouts leading up to the big race. Practically, this amounts to one extra rest day per week.
Duration-When To Start?
There is wide variation among research on the subject as taper periods of 4 to 28 days have been investigated. However, accounting for subtle differences across the three sports of triathlon, evidence for the optimal taper duration seems strongly in favor of a 2-3 week taper. During that taper period, researchers believe that a progressive decrease in volume, rather than a one-time step down, will result in an optimal taper.
The process of tapering clearly seems to enhance performance before an important race. However, as designing the ideal taper period seems art as well as science, the optimal taper for every triathlete may require individual adjustments within the above guidelines.
Ian McMahan is a San Francisco based athletic trainer and freelance writer with a Master’s Degree in Exercise Physiology.