In theory, tapering is a very simple concept. You train hard for an event before a period of rest is required in order for you to recover from the training load and then produce your best performance on race day.
The ‘taper’ constitutes the phase where you reduce training stress and increase the amount of rest you’re getting in order to fully adapt and recover.
If the overall concept is simple, the devil is in the detail! Much like your hydration strategy, there isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ approach when it comes to optimal tapering, but four members of Team PH have provided a helping hand with their top-five tips for tapering...
1. A mental game: It is tempting to think about tapering as something purely ‘physical’, but I think that a HUGE component of any taper is about what it does to your head. Racing can require a lot of digging deep from a mental standpoint and I think that a great taper leaves you psychologically prepared to ‘go to the well’ a number of times. Mental relaxation (reading, de-stressing, doing activities that you enjoy and chill you out) are a critical component of a good taper in my experience.
2. It’s all relative: Tapering is relative to recent training load and most importantly how you have coped with that. If you’ve been training hard for a very long period of time and have adapted really well to that level of load a very dramatic taper may not be as effective as a small reduction in volume and/or training intensity. When you are used to a certain level of activity, too much of a sudden deviation from that can leave you feeling excessively sluggish or stale. On the flip side if you’ve been training hard and are feeling jaded from it then a more aggressive taper may be exactly what’s needed to bring your form out.
3. Over-taper or under-taper? I’d rather be a little over-tapered and under-trained than the other way around. Point two notwithstanding, my general feeling towards tapering is to aim to feel well-rested rather than squeezing additional training in during the final build-up to any event. To that end, I usually start to taper about 14 days before most endurance events and to dramatically reduce overall training volume (to 50% or less than what I’ve been doing regularly to that point). I may lose a small percentage in fitness edge doing this, but the mental freshness I feel can more than make up for this on race day
4. Don’t expect to feel good: Many athletes report feeling sluggish and nervous during a taper period. Roll with this, it's quite normal. Expecting to feel really good in the final few days is natural, but also definitely not a prerequisite of putting out a brilliant performance on the day.
5. Look for patterns but not the ‘secret formula’: You can learn a lot about how you respond to tapering from past experience but don’t go looking for the exact mathematical equation that will be your optimum tapering formula for all events. Every tapering situation is unique so do look for trends (do you tend to benefit from a big or small drop in training load?), but accept that you’ll need to test and adjust each taper ‘on the fly’.
1. Chill: You’ve done the work, congratulations. However, tapering is probably the worst time for an athlete. Expect to get anxious, expect to be cranky, expect to overthink and question everything. So my first piece of advice: just chill. Catch yourself when you’re having one of those moments and listen to some music, stretch, watch a movie, even have a glass of wine!
2. Visualisation: If you’re 10-14 days out from your event it’s natural and inevitable that you’re just burning nervous energy constantly thinking about your event. Use this energy wisely and positively. Visualise the key, important stages of your event. Make these visualisations your ‘go-to’ thoughts at these times. For example, visualise the whole process in T1 & T2 in a triathlon.
3. Scenario planning: Regardless if how long your taper is, it’s the ideal time to work on some scenario planning and the techniques you will need to employ. Plan for, and expect things to go wrong during your race. Now is the time to practice.
For example, in an open-water swim what will you do if your goggles get kicked off? In the pool practice rolling onto your back, adjusting them and rolling back and carrying on. Absolute worst case scenario, you lose your goggles completely. Practice swimming without goggles. See how you cope. There are numerous other examples for all sports, make a list and work through it.
4. Wash your hands: Just do it. The worst time to contract an illness is when your body is coming off a period of high workload and into a taper. The easiest way to contract an illness is through touch. So make it a mantra to regularly wash your hands and minimise that risk.
5. Sleep: Last year Andy recommended (actually insisted) that all of us at PH read this superb book — Why We Sleep by Mathew Walker. Get yourself even more sleep during your taper, try for 30-60 additional minutes each night during the lead up to your race. Basically there is no downside to getting a bit more shut-eye.
1. Psychology: Much like a hydration strategy, a taper that works for one person might not for another. When I was racing seriously as a canoeist, most athletes I raced with or against had slightly different approaches they swore worked best. I’m certain there’s a huge psychological element to how you structure your taper - it’s as much to prepare your mind as making sure your body is ready to perform as it’s best.
2. What works best for you: It also worth noting your approach to a taper will obviously change depending on what you are tapering for and what kind of shape you are in, as well as according to what load you have been under in your final training block.
3. Experience: Figuring out what works for you generally comes with experience but for me, when I was training hard, I seemed to feel best on race day when I maintained the intensity of my sessions but reduced the volume within them.
As an example, a key session (and one of my favourites!) was 12 x 4minutes on with one minute of recovery in between. In a taper week I’d reduce this to five or six efforts and perhaps increase the rest to 2 minutes on the Wednesday before a Saturday race.
4. ‘The Sharpener’: I also tended to have a full day of rest two days out from race day with a short sharpener session the day before. I found if I took the full day off before a race it was more likely I’d feel sluggish on the start line the following day.
5. Nutrition and hydration: I’d estimate I consume similar amounts of fluids and calories to that in a heavier training week but with a reduced volume of work in the tank. I found if I went too crazy with intake that was another route to feeling particularly heavy and slow at the start line.
1. Mr Grumpy: I’ve never been someone who particularly enjoys tapering, it might sound odd but I actually enjoy training, that feeling of earned tiredness and the satisfying ache of worked muscles keeps me relaxed and focused. I understand the logic behind freshening up before a big effort and there’s no doubt that performing some form of taper is needed to produce your best performance but it’s not something I look forward to (knowing I’ll likely become a bit grumpy and agitated).
2. Be yourself: Similar to a lot of training plans, athletes flock to approaches that follow the method ‘this works for me so you should do it too’, and copying what works for someone else is usually a bad route to finding out what actually works best for you.
3. Be flexible: When racing triathlons my taper was very formalised, with only minor changes over the years. I knew exactly what I was going to do every day leading into a race from at least a week out.
I competed at ÖTILLÖ Isles of Scilly (coming 3rd with my partner Andy Blow, don’t you know?) and it soon dawned on me that the demands of swimrun were far from what I first thought and that significantly changed the way I trained, and ultimately tapered. Unfortunately, three weeks out I felt ill for a solid week and this meant I lost two of the biggest weeks of training I had planned all year.
No big stress, these things happen and the fitness gained over X number of years isn’t going to be lost overnight. I felt the need to ramp my training up over the next 10 days to feel good and then go into a short, far more aggressive taper three-days leading into the race.
4. Questions: Was this perfect? Would I do it again? I work with what I have and I make a judgement call based on years of personal experience, asking myself questions like; what makes me feel good? What gives me confidence? What can I feasibly recover from whilst also really revving the engine and cleaning the pipes?
5. Listen to your body: I personally think you need the confidence to listen to your body and respond sensibly, with the final race performance in mind – you don’t want to leave your best performance in a session during the week leading into a race.
So, there you have it, that's the view of the team at PH. Hopefully you're equipped with a few more handy tapering tips for you to use ahead of your next big race.