How to optimise your triathlon taper

Mikael Ericksson of the excellent That Triathlon Show podcast (on which Andy was recently a guest to talk about all things hydration) has shared some advice on how to taper into a triathlon more effectively...

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Ok, so you've got most of your training under your belt. You're fit and excited for your upcoming race. But one thing remains to be done to make sure you arrive at the starting line in the best form you possibly can...the taper.

You don't really need to taper if you're doing your first triathlon, your goal is just to finish, and you've been training conservatively so you shouldn't carry a lot of fatigue from your training. But, if you're hoping to set a new PB, or just want to make sure you have the best performance you can on the day, tapering for your race is non-negotiable. 

Multiple studies have suggested that the performance improvement you can expect from effective tapering is 2-3%, but there's a larger range of results from 0.5% all the way up to 8% (for cycling only).

So, let's say you're trying to go under 6 hours for a half Ironman - if you get the 3% expected improvement from a well-executed taper, that's over 5 minutes off from your time. This could very well make or break your sub-6 hour attempt.

Tapering for a triathlon is not an easy thing to get right, so here are some tips to help you nail it. These tactics are all backed by science and by what the best athletes and coaches in the sport are actually doing...

 

Executing the perfect triathlon taper

The thing that makes tapering so difficult is that it's such a delicate balancing act.

You need to reduce your training load to reap the benefits of reduced fatigue, without losing fitness in the process (or at least minimising any loss of fitness).

In designing your perfect taper, there are four variables you need to balance..

  1. Taper duration
  2. Training volume
  3. Training frequency
  4. Training intensity


Let's go through what the scientific literatire says about each of these and establish some best practices...

 

1) Taper duration

There's strong evidence that the optimal duration of a taper is ~8-14 days. 

This comes from a meta-analysis of 27 studies on tapering for swimming, cycling and running. 8-14 days was found to be the optimal duration both when all disciplines were analysed together, and in each of the three disciplines individually.

In practice, the 8 days at the lower end of the range would be a good starting point for tapering for sprint-distance triathlons. 

10 days or so could be used as a rough guideline for Olympic distance tapering, and 14 days should be standard practice for tapering for half or full distance triathlons.

 

2) Training volume

That same meta-analysis found that 40-60% reduction in training volume compared to your pre-taper training schedule is the optimal amount.

With that said, there's some evidence indicating that, for triathletes, the reduction in run training volume should be kept at a lower 20-40%. This could then be compensated by slightly higher reductions in swimming and cycling training volume.

It's too early to go out and state for a fact that this is something all triathletes should do in their taper, and it's not something that could be considered standard practice either. However, it's definitely worth experimenting with if you're an experienced athlete looking for a truly optimal triathlon tapering strategy.


But, how should you go about reducing the volume of your training?

Should you reduce it in one go, or progressively? 

Research has shown that the answer is the latter. 

Not only that, the shape of the progressive volume reduction shouldn’t be linear, but rather have a fast exponential decay shape, as seen below.

 

Tapering for triathlon - taper shape

 

The shape of the volume reduction during your taper should have roughly this exponential decay shape according to this study.

Obviously, it isn’t feasible (or even desirable) to follow these exact percentages, and you don’t have to decrease the volume every single day. 

Just make sure you gradually reduce your volume and stick to the concept of a rather sharp decrease at the beginning of the taper, which levels out more and more as your taper progresses.

 

3) Training frequency

Generally, it's a good idea not to reduce training frequency too much, if at all. 

To reduce your training volume, I'd suggest just reducing the duration of your workouts rather than frequency.

Particularly with swimming - but to a certain degree in running as well - it’s very important to keep the “feel” for the sport and keep the movement patterns ingrained in your muscles. 

If you do reduce your training frequency, you shouldn't reduce it by more than about 20%, according to this study at least.

 

4) Training intensity

Finally, although it’s very common for triathletes to believe that a taper should consist of reductions in both volume and intensity, this is definitely not the case.

The proportion of your training done at a higher intensity should stay roughly the same as in your pre-taper training. Again, this way of tapering has been tried and tested and there’s plenty of research backing it up, including meta-analysis and direct comparisons of high-intensity tapers with low-intensity tapers. See here and here if you're interested in diving deeper into that.

 

A word on tapering for half / full Ironman events

As far as I've seen, there's not much (if any) research on how to taper for ultra endurance events like full and middle distance triathlons.

It's quite common to apply a longer taper (~3 weeks) to make sure that the chronic training load and fatigue that somes with the high training volume required for these events decreases sufficiently. But another school of thought is that the distance of the event doesn’t really make a huge difference, since the taper should be relative to the preceding training.

Ultimately, this is where the coach or the self-coached athlete needs to make a personalised decision based on experience.


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