Taper is an interesting time for an Ironman athlete.And for most "easy" and "taper" are never spoken in the same sentence.
Physically, taper is a needed time for endurance athletes to ensure that the body is rested and well-fueled for the upcoming long haul. A drastic drop in training allows the body to recover from all the previous stress. Nearing race day, intensity can be added to "wake up" the body while volume is still kept low. This allows an athlete to feel sharp, fresh and hungry for race day.
Of course, the style of tapering may differ between athletes, depending on fitness ability, race priority and prior taper experience.
Emotionally and mentally, taper can be rather difficult. On one end, you can't wait for the first day of taper when you have a sigh of relief that the end of "training" is near but on the other end, a change in schedule, appetite, structure, etc. can makes you feel a bit "off."
Regardless of the taper, you have to learn how to embrace your taper for without it you may arrive to race day sore, exhausted, mentally checked-out and unable to perform. But taper too much, and you feel flat, exhausted and unable to perform.
As you can see, tapering is an important time and every athlete needs to learn how to properly execute tapering before an endurance event.
Many athletes go into taper seeing it as a horrible time. Appetite issues, sleep issues, random aches, fatigue, mood changes, uncontrollable nerves, extra time (not sure how this is a bad thing for an age group athlete). These are a few of the many complaints that athletes describe when it comes to tapering.
Although some of these may occur, I do believe that athletes need to learn how to have a healthier relationship with taper in order to enjoy the time before race day for it is necessary and beneficial.
A well-executed taper tips
Enjoy your new normal
There is absolutely no reason to be inactive during taper and if anything, you do not want your body to get lazy. However, do not use your free time to pick up a new sport like soccer, basketball, rock climbing or water skiing. It is important to give your body a few days of a very light load of workouts (or a few off days from working out - not necessarily in a row) after your last big block of training. However, once you feel like the body is rested and refueled from those workouts (at least 3-4 days), then you want to continue to exercise in order to keep your body fresh. On race week, your body may crave or reject the desire for intense intervals for the first two or three workouts that you doing or perhaps in just the first few minutes of a main set but the added intensity is needed. You gotta wake that body up so that it knows a race is coming.
(If you feel you are burntout or overtrained, this needs to be discussed with your coach for this is very serious to your health and can affect race day execution).
Be smart with your new normal
You should avoid any type of "testing" workouts, especially if you are injured. If your body is injured but you just want to test it, you need to give yourself at least 48 hours after the moment/day you feel "healed" to ensure you do not backtrack. Consider that 1 day too soon testing your body after an injury can put your back 3 days or a week or more. It is absolutely not worth testing your body with fear-based training, just to see if you can do "it." Save your best performance for race day.
You should never compromise sleep during your taper. Whereas long workouts are often done early morning on the weekends to avoid hot temps later in the day (and perhaps to accommodate family schedules) this is understood. But the shorter volume workouts during taper should allow you to not be so rushed in the early morning. Athletes who continue to wake up at 4:30-5:30am on the first weekend of taper (assuming this follows 4-6 days of waking up at 4:30-5:30am to work out before work) is not an ideal way to take full advantage of taper. Unless you are getting at least 7-8 hours of restful sleep at night, allow your body to sleep without waking up to an alarm. Sleep will not only help repair and rejuvinate your body but it will help with appetite as well and reset hormone levels.
You are not lazy. It is important that you do not see taper as a negative experience for your body in that you are losing fitness, gaining weight or being too sedentary. Hopefully, you are not sedentary and are still maintaining a swim-bike-run lifestyle BUT with a reduction in volume and intensity. Accept that you needed to put in the work to train your body but now you need to rest it through a lighter load. When your "workout" is over, find ways in your life that you can keep your body and mind healthy and happy. Explore new places, spend time in the kitchen, catch up with chores/to-do's, volunteer, go for long walks, etc. there is so much you can do with your extra time that no athlete should ever feel bored, antsy or upset with having extra "free" time. Just be sure you are not compromising your health by putting yourself into situations that could risk injury or sickness.
Maintain a healthy relationship with your body
I believe that athletes need to prioritize this tip for it is extremely important in feeling confident with your body before race day. In the 2-3 weeks before a race, this is not the time to make "race weight". Your body may feel different and it may feel tired. Coupled with a drop in volume and a change in routine, this can cause an athlete who feels insecure with body image to feel uncomfortable in their own skin. We must change this thought process immediately. Many times when athletes feel vulnerable, they want to immediately fix a situation. What ends up happening is the need to do something extreme/drastic with the diet/exercise routine during taper like underfueling, intentional dehydrating (or fasting/detoxing) or overexercising. All of this is not advantageous to a great race day experience.
If you struggle in this area, you must focus on what your body is capable of doing on race day. When was the last time you thanked your body for allowing you to train for your Ironman distance triathlon? Direct your energy to how amazing your body is and where it was (fitness-wise) when you started training for this upcoming event and where it is today. What are you able to do now that you once couldn't? What is your body capable of on race day? What is it that you want from your body on race day?
Keep in mind that you are not racing for the ideal body image on race day. Your fans, fellow athletes, teammates and spectators are watching what your body can do on race day and not what your body looks like.
In addition to these 3 tips, a change eating is often necessary to accommodate the change in training volume. I will cover this in another blog as well as some ways to reduce cravings and to minimize hunger during taper.
Have a happy and healthy taper!