Triathlon Tapering

triathlon tapering

How to Taper for Triathlon for maximal gain

Learning how to taper for triathlon effectively is a critical skill to learn in triathlon training.  Many things in life seem to be a paradox!  As triathlete, you have been told for months that the way to get faster and stronger is to push your body harder, faster and out of its comfort zone.

Then suddenly you are told- you need to slow down and rest to get faster and stronger, it is no wonder this is difficult to get your head around. But preparing correctly really can make the difference to a good day and a great day.

Triathletes get so highly focused to keep training, to follow their plan no matter what.  Discipline is high: We say “no” to all excuses, we say “no” to bad weathers and just do what is says on our plan. Truth be told, we also might be, just a little bit, almost addicted to the pain!

However rest is when the body repairs cell and tissue damage, refuels muscle glycogen, restores metabolic enzymes and anti oxidants.

Rest allows both our body and mind to recover from a hard season’s training and the stress placed upon it. We need to allow our body to repair and re fuel. We need to allow it to hydrate, feel fresh and well rested.

Learning how to taper for triathlon is tough

Many do not taper- for fear of losing the competitive edge, fear of putting on weight and fear of losing fitness.

How to get race ready is one of the hardest psychological things to do for a triathlete- but it is one of the most important.

For some people, even having one day off, fills them with guilt. By the time they taper, they are so physically and mentally strong, nothing will stop them. A week of reduced training sends them into a pure meltdown of panic!

They feel so guilty that they nip out for another “quick” 80-mile bike ride or doing a few miles of hills even though it is not in the program.

Do you know anyone like this?

There has been considerable research as to how the body reacts to the variations in reducing training load in preparation for an event.

The tapering phase is a progressive, reduction of the training load to improve physical and mental functioning and optimize sport performance.

Of course every triathlete reacts slightly differently when figuring out how to get race ready.  It will require some experimenting and tweaking on your part to get it working right for you.

The most important habit to get into is keeping a thorough triathlon training journal every day -not just with your mileage and heart rates. But also log your meals and your performances and how you felt after each one, hours you slept, quality of sleep, other stress factors that might be going on at the same time.

This information will help you gradually work out the optimal routine for you.

Sharpen your ability to perform when you need it most

The right prepartation produces race readiness, a strong highly trained body with fresh muscles. Thinking and preparing produces a clear focused mind ready to fully engage to produce the performance of a lifetime. The taper allows you to convert all your hard training into action.

In many cases this prepartion allows the athlete to produce personal best results on race day. The adrenalin and excitement of the day helps but also fresh, restored, rested muscles are a big part of this. So there are general principles, which I will outline but remember to tweak this for your body, for your training load and for your length of event.

The nuts and bolts of a triathlon taper

When winding down your training load, this does NOT mean stop training 2 weeks before the race, drink beer, lie on the sofa and eat chips. It is a progressive reduction in load and sharpening of technique. So as a guide, start by reducing training frequency and volume by 20% 2-3 weeks out from the race. The key though- is to maintain intensity.

Stay sharp and focused. Focus on technique- be as perfect as you can. Do not train sloppy- maintain perfect posture and perfect focus.  Every training session visualize that you are in the race and visualize everything going well, you feeling strong, passing other competitors.

Remember to use the extra time you are not training to practice your breathing, do your mental rehearsal(keep visualizing all aspects of the race, going well, you being in control, feeling relaxed and strong), do some more flexibility or core work.

Also you should have practiced, many, many by now times packing and using your triathlonbox or bag by now.

Some athletes just keep this race box separate with race gear so it is always ready to go to a race or always ready for a transition practice. Do not wait until the night before to pack it or you will be sure to forget something. This box contains the tools to your race day success. Make sure you give it respect!  Check and double check your race day checklist

How to be race ready perfectly will differ slightly depending on:

• Your current fitness
• Your ability to recover
• Your training volume
• The length of your event
• Other stress factors in your life- work, family

But won’t I lose my fitness the more I practice?

This is most people’s number 1 fear.

Research shows that triathletes do not lose aerobic fitness by tapering 1-3 weeks before an event.  Research also shows that triathletes have remarkable improvements in performance when they slowly reduce their training work load 1-3 weeks before an event.

A study from University of Limberg, Netherlands showed that 60% of marathon runners doing mileage in excess of 48 miles a week- arrived on the start line with depleted muscle glycogen levels and muscle cell damage that had not had time to recover due to inadequate tapering.

Will the triathlon taper make me get fat?

This is one of the biggest worries of pre race athletes. They fear feeling sluggish, losing fitness and putting on weight. Of course- the race is not over-it has not even started- so you still need to be disciplined with your diet.

This is not a time for parties, beers, pizzas and doughnuts. You are still on fresh fruit and veg, high quality protein and some carbs with plenty of water.

Some athletes put on no weight, some actually do put on 2 -3 pounds which is re hydration and the body restoring its muscle glycogen. This is nothing to get alarmed about.

Do not sit on the sofa eating cake (just yet!)



theTriathlonCoach, Simon Ward, discusses Tapering strategies for the Outlaw Triathlon 2013


What if I do just one more session?

Speed and strength adaptations take 6 weeks or so to occur.
So anything you do in the last 3 weeks will NOT enhance your performance- it will only harm it.

Hopefully you have done the hard work already. If not, my friends, I am afraid it is too late. You simply cannot make gains in the last 2-3 weeks.  It is not like cramming for an exam where you blast through the whole content of the semester the night before. And hope for the best(although some people do take this approach- most of them fail and have to drop out of the race).

It is not a joke. Take it seriously. In the last 2- 3 weeks- you are just sharpening your tools. Many people will not do this properly- so this is another tool you can use to get the edge on your competitors.  You are recovering, allowing your body to repair, you aim to be on the start line with fresh legs, no mental fatigue, well nourished, and a well stretched, well hydrated body.

OK- How exactly should I taper for triathlon?

If you are doing sprint or Olympic distance triathlon and training 5-10 hours a week- you do not need too long of a reduce your workload to peak on race day. Start 2 weeks out and reduce training volume by 10-20% two weeks out and another 20% the week before.  Do not do anything much 3 days before the race except maybe a 15 minute race pace run. And a quick cycle 15 minute if desperate just to keep the legs turning over.

How to get race ready changes if you are training over 20 hours a week- you will need to be more precise. Reduce training volume by 20% at least 3 weeks out then by another 20% 2 weeks out. Be sure to keep intensity up. Keep doing some short lactate threshold sets. Keep your mind sharp, do your drills, focus on technique.  The aim is to be at the start line with fresh legs.

This race day prepartion  will affect triathletes differently.   Some triathletes feel fresh and rested and ready to blast off the start line.  They just need to do a lot of rest with 7 days to go with some light blasts of high intensity work to keep neuromuscular pathways firing.

The correct prepartaion makes other triathletes feel tired and sluggish. These athletes will need to taper earlier - 3 weeks out and then start to sharpen up-closer to the event. So they would start doing a little more 3-5 days before the event. This is priming our bodies for race readiness.

You will need to test how it is for you and how you are feeling.

  • Refer to your training journal, identify patterns and discuss with your club members or your coach.
  • Do nothing new when you tapering
  • Do not make the mistake of trying a new sport the week before your race.  I have had clients who because they are not doing their normal 15 mile run will join the lads for a kick about football on a Sunday 2 weeks before their event. What happens? Sprained ankle or pulled groin.
  • Try to avoid the temptation to get injured doing innocuous sports or new activities until after the race.  For many triathletes they have invested huge amounts of money, emotional energy and time into getting prepared, do not waste it now.

Include travel in your “how to taper for triathlon” plan

Planning needs to become a big part of your skill set.  Planning out your race schedule, your tapering, your training plan and for events further afield, your travel arrangements.  Your races need to be scheduled to allow time to taper before, recover afterwards without getting off schedule to race again a few weeks or months later.

Of course there will individual variability here. It will depend how long it takes you to recover and if you travel, how long it takes you to acclimatize to altitudes, climates, different hotel rooms and different diets.

Always give yourself some flex- just in case.
If you think it will take you two days, after a long flight to recover, then allow four days.

Assume something will get lost, assume you might feel exhausted, assume you might feel overwhelmed, give yourself some time to adjust and time to breathe and focus on the event.

Post race recovery


Allow yourself some time off after an event to celebrate and recover.
Often due to the adrenalin and a good race prepartion, you will fly off from the start line and have the race of your life with personal bests and put out times you never thought possible. It is worth taking to time to learn how to taper for triathlon. Many don’t then wonder why they were unable to produce their best performance on race day.

You might be little sore for a few days but the glory of the day will ease these aches and pains.  It is healthy to have some mental downtime, not think about training for a while and just have some fun.  Party hard for a while, have a kick around with a football, play Frisbee on the beach.