Countdown to an Ironman: Dave Scott's 21-day Tapering Plan

<strong>The final three weeks of months and months of training are a crucial factor in how well you finish.</strong><br><br>Photo: Luke Smith/

Did you feel sluggish in your most recent 140.6-distance race, or did you hit the taper right on the mark? If you fell flat—muscles felt heavy, breathing was a bit labored, and you didn't meet your expectations—then you most likely over-looked several components of a proper taper.

While tapering the three weeks prior to a race there must be a fine balance between these 10 components:

  1. Reducing volume
  2. Maintaining intensity while reducing the length or volume of the workload
  3. Allowing the body to rebuild quickly (one to two days) after higher intensity workloads
  4. Reducing the stress hormones that affect muscle performance; ultimately eliminating muscle soreness and heaviness
  5. Maximizing muscle and liver glycogen stores
  6. Allowing the body to repair and rebuild so the power output is maximal on race day
  7. Performing recovery workouts
  8. Maintaining "normal" number of training sessions per week
  9. Fueling properly
  10. Preparing mentally

There is a common thread to follow throughout the final 21 days. However, each week has a unique set of training parameters that will guide you through an optimal taper.

Going into the taper, there is a definitive shift in training that ultimately leads to peak performance. At the end of the taper, your body will be rested and ready to race. These 10 factors will eliminate the doubt as to whether your body is ready for the race.

Keep in mind that these components are a combination of small training adjustments that are a prerequisite to attain a higher level of adaptation. For example, reducing your intensity and fueling properly will potentially enhance the elevation of your muscle glycogen.

I have dissected these factors in the three-week Ironman-distance taper, and within each week the 10 elements are put into a simplified format.

What You Must Know About Each Key Factor

  1. Reducing volume. These are the guidelines of how much to reduce your overall training volume in your taper.
    Week 3: 10 to 20 percent less than the previous week
    Week 2: Drop another 10 to 20 percent from week three
    Week 1: Drop another 10 to 20 percent of your week prior to the taper
  2. Maintaining intensity. Throughout the taper, the length of the repeats or total time of high-intensity training is reduced dramatically. But the intensity itself remains high. Numerous studies on tapering have shown that maintaining the neuromuscular system at speeds near or above race pace will enhance race day performance.
  3. Rebuilding the body. Include low-intensity recovery workouts and allow adequate recovery on rest days before or after the hard sessions.
  4. Reducing elevated levels of stress hormones. Elevated levels of stress hormones that cause muscle damage are a result of long or intense efforts. As mentioned in factors one and two above, these two types of workouts are reduced, thus alleviating muscle damage and ultimately enhancing the muscle integrity.
  5. Maximizing muscle power and liver glycogen stores. Combining high-intensity repeats with maintenance of your aerobic foundation during the final week of your taper will allow the body to maximize the strength capacity of the muscles and the storage of liver glycogen. Of course, this must be in combination with eating properly. (See No. 9.)
  6. Body repair. Studies have shown that the maximal and sustained power output of muscle is heightened with adequate rest and recovery. The taper is designed to fully rest the muscles, ultimately enabling the body to perform at the highest workload.
  7. Recovery workouts. Two types of workouts: CRUISE (25 to 35 heartbeats per minute below lactate threshold) or RECOVERY (35 to 45 beats per minute below LT) workouts will promote optimal recovery.
  8. Maintaining your normal number of training sessions per week. Your body is preprogrammed for a specific routine—whether you employ three or six workouts per discipline per week. It's important to keep the routine. However, as mentioned above, the length and intensity within each session is reduced.
  9. Fueling your body with nutrient-dense foods. Maintain your fueling routine before, during and after exercise and be careful to maintain your race weight. Do not overeat during the taper.
  10. Preparing mentally. Mentally review your strongest assets during your taper. Imagine yourself as a fluid, powerful machine. Recognize you will have numerous obstacles to overcome during the race, but you will overcome these road bumps on your way to a quality performance.
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