A well executed taper is one of the keys to success, especially at the longer distances. The primary purpose of the taper is to shed and sharpen—shed fatigue and sharpen your fitness as you unbury yourself from the volume accumulated. It's important to keep the engine idling and never shut it down. The basic concept of the taper is to keep some intensity up to the days before the race, while decreasing the volume and duration of the training, all while focusing on rest. Many athletes try to do too much too close to their "A" race. Tony DeBoom said it best when he stated that there is not a lot you can do inside three weeks to help your race, but there is a lot you can do to shipwreck it.
The distance of your race, as well as how important it is in your season, will help determine the specifics of your taper. For example, tapering for an early-season "C" race will be completely different than tapering for a late season "A" race. The duration of the taper is directly proportional to the amount of volume you have been carrying in your basic week structure and for how long. An athlete who has been averaging 20 hours per week will have a taper that is longer and more gradual than the athlete who has been averaging 13 to 15 hours a week.
IRONMAN: The general rule of thumb for the average age-group athlete preparing for an IRONMAN race is three weeks. The decrease in weekly volume is 75 percent of weekly volume the first week, 50 percent volume the second, and 25 percent volume the week of the race. For more fit athletes whose consistency has been solid, a modified three-week taper works great. It can be altered so the third week is 70 percent of the average weekly volume, the second week is 50 to 65 percent, and race week is 25 to 35 percent (with the last two weeks weighed more toward the front of the week).
IRONMAN 70.3: For an important IRONMAN 70.3 race late in the season, I generally prescribe a 17-day taper. The last long run should occur at the 16 to 17 day mark prior to the race. The last long bike should be done 10 to 11 days out. Again, as in an IRONMAN taper, we can keep our swimming at normal volumes and intensity all the way up to the Thursday prior to race week. Inside 10 days all the sessions should be short with brief, intense efforts to activate all the energy systems, as well as to recruit as many muscle groups as possible to keep the body awake and ready to respond on race day.
With specific workouts, the last long run should be 16 to 20 days prior to the race depending on the athlete and their run fitness. The last long bike should be 14 days out from the race. Athletes can swim normal training volume and intensity until nine to 10 days prior. It's very important to introduce complete rest days during the taper, but not so many that you will start feeling lethargic.
For the last long run, I like to break the run into three rounds of efforts at target race pace. I like to make those efforts in two-mile efforts at race pace or slightly faster with half mile recoveries in between. So: one mile easy warm up, two miles at race pace or slightly faster, half mile recovery (repeat two more times with warm down and a few strides at the end). This is a solid muscular endurance and strength run that also gives the athlete some confidence that they can sustain their target pace.
The last long bike should include a few 12 to 20-minute efforts at race effort with 10 minutes of recovery between sets. So, 30 to 45 minutes warm up, then 2 x 12 to 20 minutes race pace efforts in the big ring, with 10 minutes of recovery between. One thing I like to do in the last 30 minutes of this ride is do five reps of big ring standing for one minute to get everything firing. It's harder than it sounds and is a perfect top-off to take you into your taper.
The Final Week
In that last week, you should make a point to keep everything short. Consider alternating cadence efforts on the bike as well as 90-second race pace efforts a few days prior. These can be structured as 5 x 90-second race pace efforts with equal rest (90 seconds).
On the run, athletes should not do anything longer than 30 second efforts in the last week. My favorite workout is alternating no more than 10 rounds of 30 seconds quick, 30 seconds easy within a 30 to 40 minutes run. With the swim, it's good to insert speed into efforts no longer than 75's in that last week. A great taper set during race week is 12 x 75's split up as 25 easy, 25 all out, 25 easy.
A lot of athletes report feeling terrible five to six days into a taper. That is OK. You don't have to feel good in the early part of your taper. You only need to feel good on race day. You can tell that your taper is starting to work in that last week when you start to feel antsy and you want to go much harder and longer than you should. Resist the temptation to "test" your fitness during the last 10 days. As you start to shed that fatigue, it will be very tempting to do so. You can only truly harvest that fitness once, so save it for race day, especially the last third of your race. This is where discipline is absolutely crucial.
Rest alone will not facilitate a proper taper and peak. It takes both rest and shorter, intense efforts to properly shed and sharpen for race day.
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