There are many methods and thoughts regarding how much “rest” is needed by athletes, before going into a major competition. Some athletes will train high volume until 7-10 days from an Ironman whereas other athletes will experience a massive drop in volume 21 days out from an Ironman.
Ultimately, when done correctly (and only a few times per year), tapering sharpens your body and mind so that you are prepared physically and mentally for your upcoming competition.
Tapering is defined as a short-term reduction in a training load before an important athletic event.
When you train consistently, you are placing a lot of intentional stress on your body. You know this feeling well as you are carrying around a lot of residual fatigue, which makes it difficult to feel fresh and energetic for all of your workouts.
However, you need to train through fatigue so that your body can adapt in order to gain the necessary physiological adaptations to help meet the physical demands of your upcoming event.
During your peak training, you never have time to fully recover between your workouts. You are always bringing fatigue to the next workout.
Even with the occasional rest day and EZ workouts inserted into your training plan, your body is never completely repaired from the previous hard workout(s).
While you can use sleep, mobility, recovery gear, diet and massage to encourage quick recovery, taper finally gives your body the chance to heal from the destructive process that we call training.
Whereas you spend many months making physiological investments to gain fitness, it's only on race day (for your key race) when you finally “cash out” with your accumulated fitness gains.
Tapering also provides a necessary mental relief from the emotional toll that training has on the body. Through taper, you can improve your mental energy to prepare psychologically for your race (insert: train your mind to be willing to suffer on race day).
It is important that you limit the validation of fitness/readiness-type workouts (ex. race simulations, obsessive race pacing with heart rate, speed or power, etc.) during taper as it may physically make it hard for your body to perform well on race day but it is emotionally exhausting to do a "race effort" more than once.
You only need to dig deep and prove you can do it once....on race day.
Don't race your workouts!
Aside from the obvious benefits that you feel when tapering before a major competition, your decrease in training load will boost muscle glycogen levels, increase aerobic enzymes, repair micro-tears in muscle and connective tissue (which can help improve power, speed and endurance), increase blood volume, improve neuromuscular coordination and boost mental focus.
Be mindful that tapering does not result in detraining but improves your ability to race as it helps reduce the accumulated effects of fatigue and muscle/tissue breakdown, induced by heavy training.
Tapering will not set you up for a great race day performance if you do not put in the necessary work to physiologically prepare for your upcoming event.
Following a haphazard training plan or only doing only a handful of workouts in the 8 weeks before an Ironman (because life got into the way or you are overcoming an injury) does not warrant a long extended taper (it can actually do more harm than good).
Because too long and too much of a taper can make you feel out-of-shape and off your normal routine, sharpening with just the right amount of a drop in volume, with adequate intensity and recovery, as you stay committed to your mental strength skills, will help you gain an athletic advantage as you will be training just enough, at the right intensity and volume, in order to perform at the highest level possible on race day.
Drafting behind Karel on my road bike (double hard work fro me not being aero!) during his ride on Saturday.
Karel's week started out easy with 3 days of frequent, low intensity workouts to help with recovery after the past 3 weeks of intense and long training.
Karel felt "off", which was to be expected, as his body was doing some massive recovering and repairing.
The intensity increased on Thursday with a healthy amount of IM training volume over the weekend.
Here's how the weekend looked just 2 weeks out from IM Kona (Karel's 3rd IM since June).
(Karel is coached by Matt Dixon of Purple Patch Fitness)
4 hour ride + 30 min run
60 min, 45 minutes, 30 minute at IM effort w/ 15 min Z1/2 effort in between each IM effort.
Run off the bike:
10 min below, 10 min at, 10 min above IM effort
80 minute run
2 x 20 min Z3+ w/ 10 min Z2 in between