Executing the Perfect Taper

by Karen Smyers

One of my favorite phases of training and racing is The Taper. It ranks right up there with massage and carbo-loading on my list of reasons that I do triathlon. I find myself looking forward to the taper weeks and even months in advance. When I am trying to schedule a time to do my taxes for example, I will think, oh, I will do it in early September when I am tapering for the World Championships. I imagine I will be brimming over with time and energy during this phase. This seldom proves to be the case, but it is a good excuse to file for an extension.

Taper Prerequisites To execute a good taper, it is (unfortunately) necessary to have some sort of foundation from which to taper–in other words, you must have done some pretty hard training leading up to the race; otherwise you run the risk of tapering yourself right out of shape. In general, the longer and harder the work phase leading up to the taper, the longer the taper can be. So if you have had a several month long build up to Ironman, you can take as long as a month to taper for the race. If you have had a three week intense build up for the National Championships, a one week taper is probably about right.

During your taper phase, try to treat the workouts you do with respect. Pamper yourself; be a little more selfish with your time and energy.

The more stress and obstacles you have during your build up phase, the more impact your taper can have (assuming you have a way of reducing or removing the stress during the taper phase). For example, if you train a lot after only 4-5 hours sleep or after a night carousing the nightclubs, imagine how good you are going to feel after 7-8 hours sleep and no headache. If you often have to train with the baby jogger, you will feel light and free and fast when you finally get to run solo.

Reduce, Refine, Relax During the taper, you want to gradually reduce your overall mileage in all three sports. This is the primary reason you will be starting to feel rested and more energetic. If it is a three-week taper you may reduce it to 80% the first week, 60% the second week, and 40% the third week. If it is a one week taper, you may cut right to 50% of your normal mileage in that one week.

At the same time that you reduce your overall mileage, you want to refine your intensity training to some short and sweet quality sessions. You may cut your track workouts in half, for example, but still run each interval as hard as you normally would. You should even find yourself going faster at the same effort as you start to feel rested and sharp. You should concentrate on maintaining great form and finish the workout feeling invigorated; if your quality sessions during the taper leave you feeling exhausted and depleted, you are doing too much.

Which brings me to the next important element: rest. Sleep should become a top priority even if it means not getting up for morning swim practice, or missing Law and Order. Some sacrifices have to be made (they are reruns in the summer anyway.) Pay attention to your nutrition as well: ironically when the body is allowed to rest it sometimes also thinks it is OK to get sick and obliges by coming down with a cold or flu. A multivitamin per day is a good idea just to cover all your bases.

A good example of tapering is my pre-race regimen which I call the 3,2,1 taper: I have three beers three nights before the race, two beers two nights before the race, and 1 beer the night before. (Further extrapolation of this principle has been tried though I can’t vouch for its effectiveness.) But don’t forget what I said earlier about the importance of a “foundation” before successfully executing a taper. Months of “hard work” must precede the 3,2,1 taper.

How to screw up a good taper Don’t make the mistake of using your new-found free time to do something out-of-the-ordinary like weed the garden for a couple of hours. You will wake up wondering why your hamstrings feel like they already ran the marathon, without help from any other muscles. Even cleaning your bike, if it involves leaning over for a long period of time. can give you sore muscles the next day. It is best to recline on the couch and work nothing but your well-toned thumb to surf for inspiring movies or sports events to get you psyched. If you completely run out of everything else to do, work on your taxes.

Also, try to refrain from spending all your extra time near the refrigerator or pantry. The only time triathletes are generally not eating is when they are training. Once the training time is cut down, there is a tendency for the eating time to expand. Which often leads to an expansion of the waistline as well. Putting an extra five pounds on during the taper phase is not going to lead to peak performance. Save the overindulgence for the Getting Out of Shape phase which I have to admit is another one of my favorite phases of the triathlon season. I will save that column for a later date.

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