Author, Board Certified Sport Dietitian, Master of Science in Exercise Physiology, 2017 IM CHOO Amateur Female Champion, 14xIronman finisher including 6xIM Kona qualifier, Triathlon Coach, 26-year Vegetarian.
Essential Sports Nutrition
Effective taper tips (and what not to do)
We all have our own ways of tapering so it would be a mistake to say that there is one "right" way to taper for an upcoming event. As we develop our fitness and skills, our ideal taper methods may change. However, it's a common mistake to assume that tapering = resting.
Tapering is defined as a short-term reduction in a training load before an important athletic event.
While you may not be accumulating as many weekly training hours during your taper, a short-term reduction in load can occur in many ways. As an example, your typical long ride of 2-2.5 hours can still be done 6-8 days before your upcoming event so load as you reduce the overall "stress" of the workout. By fueling smart, allowing ample recover between any intense intervals and not chasing any paces/watts, you can still ride "long" and feel rested without a massive drop in training volume. Certainly, your taper is dependent on the training that you did and didn't do in the months leading up to your upcoming event.
When you train consistently for months/weeks at a time, you place a lot of intentional stress on your body. You may know this feeling well because as your training ramps up, it becomes more difficult to feel fresh, light and energetic for all of your workouts. You never have time to fully recover between workouts and even with the occasional rest day, bridge session and easy 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 stimulate recovery, taper finally gives your body the chance to recover from the destructive training process. Because you need your healthy body to train through fatigue in a smart training plan, this allows you to adapt in order to gain the necessary physiological adaptations to help meet the physical demands of your upcoming event. Come taper, you can finally maximize those adaptations and "cash out" on all of your training investments.
Tapering also provides a necessary mental relief from the emotional toll that training has on the body. Because racing is mentally exhausting, it's important to give time to yourself on race week to improve your mental energy to feel psychologically and emotionally ready for your race.
There are many methods and thoughts regarding how much “rest” is needed by triathletes before a race. Is it one week, a few days, two weeks or three weeks?
Ultimately, when done correctly, tapering sharpens your body and mind so that you arrive to your race prepared physically and mentally, to perform at your best. Understanding that tapering does not result in detraining, a reduced training volume allows the body to recover from the accumulated effects of fatigue and muscle/tissue breakdown, induced by heavy training. Make note that an effective taper comes after consistent training. Tapering will not set you up for a great race day performance if you do not put in the necessary work to physically prepare for your upcoming event.
What can you expect during taper?
Because too long and too much of a taper can make you feel tired and off your normal routine, your taper should sharpen your body, mind and skills for race day. During your final 1-2 weeks of training, you should include a nice mix of intensity, recovery, a sight drop in overall volume and a lot of frequent workouts to keep you fresh for race day. You must trust this process as it’s not about resting but priming your systems to help you gain an athletic advantage to perform at your best on race day.
Avoid the taper funk
Taper can be a long-awaited yet uncomfortable time for triathletes.
During the first 3-7 days of taper, athletes will often complain of feeling overly sleepy, walking around with heavy legs, noticing a drastic change in appetite, noticing new niggles, aches and other phantom pains, feeling run-down or sick and moody, losing motivation to train, lacking energy during workouts, not feeling fresh or sharp and feeling worrisome that fitness is lost. However, every athlete responds differently during taper.
When you are so comfortable to doing things a certain way for many months, and then you suddenly change that routine, your mind and body can become very confused. You may become oversensitive to any body issue/niggle and start to freak out.
When you have been training through fatigue for many months and then you progressively let your body recover and heal, the repairing process can make you feel weird, tired and even out of shape!
Do’s and Do not’s during taper
Do not freak out if you are feeling off. The only day that matters is race day and on race day your body will know exactly what it needs to do.
Do not train with fear or try to prove your fitness during taper (ex. fear you won’t be ready unless you do x-miles/distance workout). You cannot gain any fitness during taper or make-up for missed/bad workouts but you can lose your readiness to perform by doing too much volume/intensity during taper.
Do not get off your normal routine. While you should try to go to bed earlier and sleep in on the weekends, try to keep yourself on a similar routine as to when you normally workout.
Do not be scared of intensity during taper, just be sure to follow the recommended recovery between sets/intervals and don’t go harder/longer than advised.
Do not do nothing on race week. It is very easy for athletes to assume that they can skip or reduce the volume of workouts on race week because they are tapering, traveling or because life is keeping you extra busy You must follow your taper plan which includes frequent, low volume workouts. If you skip workouts and rest too much, the body will get lazy and it will be difficult to wake it up on race day.
Do not fill in your free time during taper with housework, chores, outside activities (ex. soccer, Frisbee) or other strenuous activities. While you don't have to be sedentary, you need to be extra careful with how you spend your energy. Use your free time to visualize, relax, cook or read. We have had several athletes get injured during taper due to accidents thanks to too much free time.
Do not try new things during taper. However, taper is the time when you can sharpen your skills (swim, bike, run) and practice the little details like u-turns on your bike, swim starts/finish in open water, transitions, grabbing and rotating bottles on your bike and hydration belt and anything else that will help you feel more prepared for race day. Always be careful and cautious during taper – many accidents happen during taper because athletes become careless with everyday activities.
Do us similar gear in training as you would on race day and rehearse your race day skills, clothing and tactics. Race wheels, helmet, goggles, gadgets, clothing and anything else that you plan to use on race day should be used in training, several times, in the 2-4 weeks before race day.
Do arrive to your race as early as possible to avoid feeling rushed before a race.
Do make yourself workout the day before your race, within 90 minutes of waking. We do not believe in having the day-off from training on the day before a competition. This pre race workout should last 45 minutes to 90 minutes and should include biking and running. We leave swimming as optional, but recommended if water conditions are safe, weather is ideal and you are not rushed.
Do not spend too much time outside in the heat or on your feet during race week.
Do put yourself first on race week. Communicate with your family as to your needs and expectations on race week so that you can get yourself and keep yourself in the zone.
Do not try anything new during taper unless you have discussed with your coaches. If you are considering trying something new on race day, discuss with your coaches.
Do visualization and mental strength activities every day on race week for at least 10-20 minutes.
Do write out your race strategy/execution plan and travel itinerary on the weekend before race week.
Do not “race your workouts” or try to validate your fitness or readiness in training. Save your best performance for race day.
Do not hang around energy suckers. Surround yourself with energy givers. Limit your time on social media. Do not make excuses before the race or go into the race with low expectations.
Do minimize/remove yourself from social media and reduce work/family obligations so that you can stay within your own thoughts and not worry about what’s happening in the world, feel stressed out or compare yourself with other athletes.
Do go into your race slightly undertrained than overtrained. No matter what obstacles or setbacks you had to overcome in training, you can only race with your current level of fitness.
Do focus on good nutrition throughout taper. You should only modify your diet in the 48-72 hours before your race by reducing high fiber/fat foods and slightly increasing carbohydrates.
Do stay well-hydrated and fueled during taper.
Do not bash your body, diet or worry about your body image during taper. Be proud of your body.
Do focus on really great sleep, lifestyle habits and stress management. Tapering is not just about reducing your training load and enjoying free time but focusing on the many ways that you can stay healthy, fit and fresh for race day.
Do not race if you are injured or sick. Consider the outcome of your choice as well as your long term health and training/racing goals before the instant gratification your ego may feel when consider toeing the start line.
Do get a full body massage on the Sunday/Monday of race week. This should be a flush massage, not spot specific or deep tissue. Your massage should be from someone who you have used in the past, that knows your body well.
Do not focus on what other athletes are/are not doing. Only focus on yourself. Never race another athlete's race or try to follow the diet/fueling plans of another athlete.
Do understand that there is no one perfect recipe for tapering. Your taper response is unique to you and your training background, your event and your physiology.
Do remind yourself that you are ready. Don't worry about the past or the future but focus on the present moment.