By Jim Vance

I once worked with an athlete for a number of seasons and had excellent success. When he came to me, he couldn’t break 10 hours in Kona and had never won his age group in a 70.3. By the time we had our final season together, he had gone 9:16 and 9:35 in Kona and had finished eighth in his age group there, men 35 to 39. He had also won his age group at a number of 70.3s, was the top amateur overall at a few major 70.3 races, and finished ranked the number 1 triathlete in his age group by USA Triathlon. It was quite a successful stint.

The most interesting part of this was that when we first started together, he said, “I don’t taper well. Please, let’s not taper.” I am always one to listen to my athletes, and I try to really learn from them. After all, they know themselves better than I do. But what I realized was that he just hadn’t found the taper strategy that worked for him. Together, we would come up with the strategy that was right for him. And I do want to stress that this strategy was right for him. It wasn’t something I would use with any other athlete regularly because he had a unique skill set. It became a great tool for us because we could run the same formula each season, and he was very consistent with it. In some cases, even if it wasn’t the best possible taper, he believed it was, and he did very well with it. Confidence is everything, especially at the start line.

Finding the right taper for you is the point of article. Sure, I will share this athlete’s taper with you, but I’m not going to tell you what approach, numbers, and ranges you must do. I will share the ones I find are most successful, and you can take this information to perfect your taper. We all approach races differently, based on travel (both the length of travel and timing to the race), our sleep patterns, time of year, amount of family traveling with us, weather, job demands, and more.

CTL AND TSB FOR TAPER PLANNING. One of the biggest challenges facing triathletes mentally is going to the start line feeling like you’ve done enough but have not overdone your preparation. Come the final weeks and days before the race, it is not uncommon to see athletes still killing themselves in training, thinking they might lose fitness or their sense of sharpness with their bodies. In Kona, you will see athletes excited and hammering their bikes down the Queen K or running intervals down Alii Drive, as late as the night before the World Championships. These athletes question if they’ve done enough to hold their fitness and fear they won’t be sharp for the following morning. It’s a rather silly thing to consider, since a workout the night before or even the week of isn’t going to yield new fitness; it’s more that these athletes have nothing to base their confidence on to make sure they are ready. This is where the performance management chart (PMC) with training stress balance (TSB), chronic training load (CTL), and peak values is your base for the confidence that you’ve done enough and you’re ready to do well.

This is an excerpt from the new Triathlon 2.0: Data-Driven Performance Training (Human Kinetics, 2016), written by former elite triathlete Jim Vance.

The basic way to taper is to raise TSB, your rest level, while still maximizing CTL, your fitness.

HOW MUCH CTL SHOULD I LOSE? Many of you know CTL is representative of your fitness, and you might be wondering, Why would I lose CTL? That’s losing fitness! Yes, you are correct. Remember that we discussed how you can’t gain fitness without training stress and fatigue. So remove or reduce training stress and you face a loss of fitness. However, you can control how much fitness is lost by monitoring how much CTL is lost. How much CTL an athlete should lose depends on if it is a peak event. Obviously, if it isn’t a peak event, then perhaps the athlete won’t lose any CTL.

If it is a peak event, then generally 10 percent or less is the loss you’re likely looking for. This isn’t in individual sports, such as bike and run, but total CTL. So you might lose 6 percent of your run CTL and 3 percent of your bike CTL, for 9 percent total, or do it just the opposite. I’ll determine the right amount for you shortly.

HOW HIGH SHOULD MY TSB GET? Your TSB needs to be positive for a half Ironman, at the very least. If racing a peak event, you want it more than just positive. (See table 11.1 on guidelines for TSB.) But believe it or not, you can still race well without a positive TSB. I was once told by a friend working with some Tour de France riders that a recent podium finisher at the Tour never had a positive TSB all year. I never got to see it because that information is protected, but it is believable, since in the Tour there is little chance to rest much, and professional riders are known for crazy amounts of training.

I believe an athlete can get a TSB as high as 20 and race well. I know some coaches have said even 25, but once your TSB gets beyond 20, you are sacrificing a lot of fitness and can easily begin to lose race sharpness.

TAPER TIMING AND LENGTH. There are a number of important factors to consider when determining the length and depth of a taper. They include the following.

How fit is the athlete? If the athlete is very fit, a longer taper is fine, because there isn’t much more fitness to be gained, and the bigger training sessions become more risky as the race day gets closer, leaving little time for recovery. If the athlete isn’t very fit, then there is still some fitness that can be gained in the last few weeks, so a shorter taper is reasonable. Of course, you must have balance, so the athlete can be rested enough for race day. If you have more fitness, you can lose more CTL, but if you have a lower level of fitness, you can’t afford to lose much.

How well does the athlete tend to taper? If the athlete tends to not race well with a taper, then he or she may need to adjust the TSB gain and CTL loss to be on the lower end. The goal is to find the right TSB at which the athlete races really well and increase confidence in preparation. Realize, though, that as you age this number might change, so look for trends in your tapering as well as in your training.

Is it a peak race? If the race is a key event, then a bit more taper is likely needed, because the stakes are higher.

How long is the race? If the race is an Ironman, a little more taper is needed than for a half Iron-man. I have seen athletes race very well on just two days of light training before a 70.3. I haven’t found that to work well for an Ironman.

What does the athlete like to do? How much you lose per sport should be an individual decision, based on the background and confidence of the athlete. I tend to have athletes back down a little more for the run, simply because it is so much more taxing on the body in training than cycling and swimming. However, if you’re a runner by trade, then you might want to keep your run fitness up more, if you feel better and sharper that way.

The great thing about data, and collecting it over time, is that you can actually learn what works best for the athlete, through trial and error. And if you take an even more in-depth look at it, with some subjective notes as well, such as when you travel to an event, time zones changed, how many hours of travel it was, and the race conditions, you can begin to see what makes for the perfect taper.

TAPERING FOR INDIVIDUAL ATHLETES. The athlete I mentioned at the beginning of the chapter was a great experience for me as a coach because it forced me to test what I thought was a smart or standard taper. He forced me to be creative and come up with a tapering system that would work for him, rather than just having a taper I believed should work for all athletes and making him conform to it.

Back in 2009, we didn’t know much about CTL and TSB yet, but there was a bit of information coming out, and what I saw from his past tapers in his PMCs showed me the traditional model of 10 percent CTL loss wasn’t working. It appeared to be too much loss, with too high of a TSB value.

In figure 11.1, you can see how the season progressed for the first peak race of the year, a 70.3 race in Oceanside, California. This was where the athlete would qualify for Kona (back then the race had qualifying slots), and then we would shift the preparation plans to Kona. This image shows the CTL of both bike and run data, combined into one PMC.

You can see that in March, about one month out from the race, the athlete’s CTL raised quite dramatically due to a training camp in Arizona. The athlete achieves a CTL plateau and is able to hold it quite well for the month leading into the race. CTL peaks at about 116 and drops to only 110 at its lowest, a loss of only about 5 percent. The interesting part of this is that the athlete actually drops to 110 twice, with a short three-day block of hard training sandwiched between the two three-day rest periods.

His TSB for the race was 16, which is moderate, right in the range of what most claim to be appropriate, 10 to 20 TSB. So even though he did fit in the TSB range, we had to adjust the approach of how we got to this range, to better meet his individual needs.

Again, it is important to consider the goals for the event, the athlete’s history and individual fitness, and what the athlete will be confident in doing. Ideally, you will create a template you can simply follow for consistency purposes, allowing your best performance for the fitness and preparation you’ve been able to accomplish.

Table 11.1 shows some of the ranges likely needed to be prepared well enough to accomplish your goals for the event. If you’re doing an Ironman, I don’t believe you do that as a training race. That is very rare, for only the best in the world, who can qualify with not having their best performances.

You can get to these values anyway you want, with a steady and consistent drop of CTL or a steep drop-off in the last week. Again, there are so many factors to consider, but if from the time you begin your taper (whatever your CTL value is at that point) to race day morning you are within these ranges, you will likely have a performance that will maximize your preparation.

BUILD YOUR TAPER TEMPLATE. If you’re trying to see which taper works best for you, and you have plenty of races from the past, or want to experiment with different tapers in the future, you can use table 11.2 as a tool to better assess what was done, both in the measureable ways and subjectively, such as travel, in order to better assess how the taper went.

You’ll notice the chart records the date of travel, the number of time zones changed, and the number of hours of travel. This is important because travel is a stress on the body during the taper, especially if it is long and tiresome. A perfect tapering strategy with no travel may not be as effective for a race with a lot of travel. I have seen a number of athletes attempt to race on quick turnaround from long travel, and it usually does not go well.

Table 11.3 shows the data from the athlete PMC described in figure 11.1, which helps illustrate what happened in the PMC, including the travel.

SUMMARY. Tapering is entirely individual and must be treated as such. Look at all the factors you can measure but also many whose effect can’t easily be measured, such as travel hours and time out from race day, times zones traveled, and more. Keep track of these, and you can find the template or equation for a taper that works best for you, one that allows you to tweak it as needed, with changes in event dates and locations, as well as your age and experience.

Excerpted from Triathlon 2.0 by Jim Vance. ©2016. Reprinted with permission from Human Kinetics. All rights reserved. No reproduction, transmission, or display is permitted without the written permission of Human Kinetics, Inc.