Exactly one week of training at that peak level will suffice to enable you to race at your peak performance level. The mistake many competitive triathletes make is to hit this level of training many weeks before their peak race and then sustain it, which all but guarantees that they leave their peak performance out on the roads and in the pool.
While your peak phase of training may last as long as eight weeks, and while all eight weeks of this phase can and ought to be very challenging (except for one or two recovery weeks), only that final pre-taper week should constitute a no-holds-barred effort to absorb the absolute maximum workload you can at this stage of your triathlon career.
3. An Extreme Taper
The third ingredient of a successful peak, which many competitive triathletes also have trouble executing, is an extreme pre-race taper: that is, a drastic reduction in training volume in the final week to two weeks of training. A lot of triathletes train more or less as normal until one day before their peak race, then take that last day off and call it a taper. Twenty-four hours later they wonder why they feel totally flat in the moment of truth.
The problem, of course, is that it is very difficult for the training-addicted competitive athlete to truly accept the idea that rest can be beneficial for performance. Everyone understands this fact intellectually, but only a small minority of competitive triathletes embrace it emotionally, which is the only thing that matters when it comes to actually acting on this knowledge.
I was turned onto the practice of extreme tapering by a fortunate accident. A cross-country business trip forced me to curtail and cancel several workouts during the week preceding a half-marathon running race. Irrationally, I viewed this enforced extreme taper as a setback and arrived at the starting line wracked by the insane fear that I had lost fitness in the preceding several days. My personal best half-marathon at the time was 1:17:59. My goal was to run in the 1:16s. I ran 1:13:31. I have been an extreme taperer ever since.
Exercise scientists have performed numerous studies demonstrating the physiological benefits of tapering and comparing the effectiveness of different tapering protocols. It's all very interesting, but it boils down to common sense.
When you cut way back on your training in the last week to two weeks before you race, your body gets a chance to fully adapt to all the hard training you've done and to rest up for race day. You should do more or less the same number and types of workouts during your taper as you did in the peak training week that preceded it, but progressively slash the duration of each workout.
The longer your peak race is and the higher your maximum training workload was, the longer your taper should be. A four- to five-day taper is adequate for low-volume trainers peaking for a sprint triathlon. High-volume trainers peaking for an Ironman should taper for two full weeks.
Following is an example of how your final two weeks of training for a peak Olympic-distance triathlon might look if you train according to my recommendations—and supposing you normally train on a weekly schedule of three swims, three rides and three runs per week. The final workout is a very short, very high-intensity bike session designed to trigger a muscle glycogen sponging effect that you can take advantage of by eating lots of carbohydrates in the final 24 hours before your race.
Two-week Peak-training Schedule
- Swim: 2,800 yards -- Main set: 4 x 100 sprint; 4 x 400 @ 1.5K race pace
- Bike: 40 minutes @ 40K race pace (80 min. total)
- Tempo run: 30 min. @ 10K race pace (50 min. total)
- Swim: 2,400 yards -- Main set: 8 x 200 race-start simulation (100 sprint/100 @ 1.5K race pace)
- Bike: 1 hour easy with 6 x 20-sec. accelerations
- Run: 40 min. easy + 6 x 20-sec. strides
- Ascending long bike: 2 hrs. (Increase pace every 20 min., last 20 min. @ 40K race pace)
- Steady-state run: 60 min., with 40 min. @ marathon race pace
- Swim: 2,200 yds. @ Ironman race pace
- Swim: 1,600 yards -- Main set: 4 x 100 sprint; 2 x 400 @ 1.5K race pace
- Bike: 20 min. @ 40K race pace (40 min. total)
- Tempo run: 15 min. @ 10K race pace (25 min. total)
- Swim: 1,200 yards -- Main set: 4 x 200 race-start simulation (100 sprint/100 1.5K race pace)
- Bike: 30 min. easy with 6 x 20-sec. accelerations
- Run: 15 min. easy plus 6 x 20-sec. strides
- Glycogen-loading bike workout: (10-min warm-up; 2.5 min. @ 95 percent max power; 30 sec. @ max power, 10-min. cool-down)