Tapering for a Triathlon

Introduction and overview

The taper at its essence is simple: Reduce your overall training volume while maintaining or even slightly increasing your intensity. For purposes of this essay let's define intensity as training at or higher than your goal race pace.

The mechanism of tapering is this: Over the past few weeks and months, you've consistently broken down (training overload) and then rebuilt your muscles (recovery periods). Now is your time to allow them to fully recover before you launch your final attack on your goal race. The entire rebuilding/healing process can take about two weeks, plus or minus a few days. The greater your overall training volume, the longer the entire process will take, and vice versa.

Note that some folks simply don't respond as well to longer periods of rest/taper. This is because:

a) Training volume was not high enough to require extended recovery period (for example, 8 hours total training time per week average for a 30-year old triathlete. This simply is not high enough to require a full taper).
b) The athlete's genetic disposition allows them to recover quickly from both volume and intensity throughout the training cycle.
c) The athlete's training cycle has not followed a periodized plan of base-build-peak (or general-specific, or Lydiard-like strength-speed-peak) training strategy but has been static.

For athletes that fall into the above categories, a sensible final two weeks followed by a shorter period of rest (2-5 days reduced volume) is your best bet.

General taper strategy

In general terms, reduce the training load about 20% over the last 3 weeks leading into your goal race with a larger drop in the final week. Counting backwards (race week is 0), week 2 would be about 80% of week 3, while intensity would remain just about the same. Week 1 would be about 80% of week 2 with intensity also down about 20%. Week 0 (race week), volume should drop by 25% or more while intensity is limited to short accelerations to race pace. Lydiard would call this sort of intensity training at the end of the cycle sharpening. Friel calls it peaking.

Some athletes have found that a final 5-10 minute effort at goal race effort 3-5 days out helps them 'dial in' their pace. A recent research study from the University of Western Australia on carbo loading found that 3 minutes at high effort 1-3 days out immediately followed by high carb consumption assisted with 'carb loading,' the process of jamming as much glycogen into your muscles as possible for use on race day. (Click here for an in-depth explanation from Owen Anderson of Peak Performance.) YMMV.

Specific examples

Below are a few tables with possible taper volume and intensity targets. I've included rows with suggested amount of time spent at or above lactate threshold (LT). Newer athletes training for long-distance races may find that threshold work does not help their primary limiters (stamina/endurance). More experienced athletes may find that the time required to recover from threshold work is not worth the return in performance they experience from the work. However, threshold work is essential for excelling in short course racing. Every athlete is different, so keep that in mind if you decide to use something you read here in your own training plan.

IM training volume avg 20hrs

 

week 3

week 2

week 1

race week
(does not include race time)

Time (hrs)

20

16

13

5

>Race pace (hrs)

6

5

3

1

>LTHR (hrs)

1

1

<1

<.25

*LT included in >race pace

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IM training volume avg 15hrs

 

week 3

week 2

week 1

race week
(does not include race time)

Time (hrs)

15

12

9

4

>Race pace (hrs)

4

4

2.5

~1

>LTHR (hrs)

1

<1

<1

NA

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IM training volume avg 12hrs

 

week 3

week 2

week 1

race week
(does not include race time)

Time (hrs)

12

10

8

4

>Race pace (hrs)

3

3

2.5

~1

>LTHR (hrs)

1

<1

NA

NA

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Half-IM training volume avg 20hrs

 

week 3

week 2

week 1

race week
(does not include race time)

Time (hrs)

20

16

13

5-6

>Race pace (hrs)

5

4

2.5

<1

>LTHR (hrs)

2

2

1

<.25

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Half-IM training volume avg 12hrs

 

week 3

week 2

week 1

race week
(does not include race time)

Time (hrs)

12

10

8

5

>Race pace (hrs)

3

2.5

1.5

<1

>LTHR (hrs)

1.5

1

<1

<.25

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Olympic & sprint distance training volume avg 20hrs

 

week 3

week 2

week 1

race week
(does not include race time)

Time (hrs)

20

16

13-14

6

>Race pace (hrs)

4

3

2

<.5

>LTHR (hrs)

3.5

2.5

1.5

<.25

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Olympic & sprint distance training volume avg 12hrs

 

week 3

week 2

week 1

race week
(does not include race time)

Time (hrs)

12

11

9

4

>Race pace (hrs)

2

1.5

1.5

<.5

>LTHR (hrs)

2

1.5

1

<.25

 

You should notice that as the race distance gets shorter the time spent at 'intensity' or race effort becomes less. That's because the effort level is increasing. 70-75% at IM, 80-88% at half-IM, 85% and higher for Olympic and sprint.

Specific workout suggestions - a subject I'll have to leave for another day.

Marty Gaal September 2005