October 24, 2013

Taper Down to Speed Up

Want to know the secret to squeezing out an extra percent or two in performance gains?  No, it’s not some magical elixir or banned performance-enhancing drug. The secret is to rest and recover in a way that lets you maintain fitness while eliminating fatigue.

The peak or taper period is the crucial training phase prior to your “A” race.  Do this right and you’ll set yourself up for a nice bump in performance.  Lucky for us, as the popularity of triathlon has grown so has the research into performance tuning.

Here’s what they’ve discovered:

  • The research has shown that you can consolidate your fitness gains and improve your performance by anywhere from 1% to 6% with 3% being the average.  Depending on your race goals that can be pretty significant amount especially if your focus is long course races.
  • Not all sports are created equal. For the most part it takes longer to recover from running than it does from cycling and it takes longer to recover from cycling than it does from swimming.
  • The biggest adjustment to your training load is a reduction in duration by approximately 40 to 60%. A fast reduction in volume appears to provide the biggest benefit.
  • Training frequency during the taper should be maintained at about 80% for highly trained athletes.  For the “Average Joe,” maintain training frequency at around 30% to 50% of normal to avoid de-training; do a minimum of two training sessions in each sport per week.
  • Sustain your race specific intensity in order to stay fit while you shed fatigue.
  • The taper phase can run anywhere from 1 to 4 weeks with two weeks being appropriate for most triathletes. The key is to make your taper long enough to shake off the cumulative fatigue from earlier training and keep this phase short enough so as not to cause any de-training.

Remember, this research is focused on elite athletes doing a full taper for their key races.  This makes perfect sense when you consider a percentage point in performance could mean the difference between big prize money and none.

Let’s go over how you can adapt what the pros do for your needs.

Power Down

Recovering from mental fatigue is every bit as important as recovering from the physical aspects of training.   Use the space that opens up from reduced training volume to improve both the quality and quantity of your rest with these three strategies:

  • More sleep. Nothing is better for your overall recovery than getting more sack time. Get a minimum of 7 hours of sleep at night and look for ways to build power naps into your schedule.
  • If you haven’t been meditating, now is a good time to start.  Even a few minutes a day can be just as good as a nap.  Some of the greatest triathletes in the world, including Mark Allen, made this a standard part of their training plan.
  • Reduce your consumption of caffeinated drinks and alcohol to help improve the overall quality of your rest.

How To Train

Race simulation type workouts should make up the bulk of your focused workouts during this phase.  These are combination training sessions (swim/bike, swim/run, and bike/run sessions) that as much as possible mimic your race conditions.

The key to these sessions is to keep them short to moderate in duration and close to your intended race pace.  Don’t try to go out and kill it! Your main objectives are to get dialed-in to your race day pace, rehearse your race nutrition, and smooth out your transitions.

Depending on your current fitness you should plan to do one of these race simulation sessions every few days starting two to three weeks before your goal race.  In between the key sessions build in lower intensity training as active recovery or take an extra day off.  Remember your performance gains come from using the shorter more intense training session to stay fit while you eliminate the cumulative fatigue built-up over months of training.

If your confidence is a little shaky in your level of endurance then it’s a good idea to substitute an endurance building session, such as moderate distance aerobic ride immediately followed by a short run, for a race simulation session.

How About Lower Priority Races?

So far all of the attention has gone to tapering for your “A” race.  But what about lower priority races, the so called “B” or “C” races?  Do you need to taper for these races and if so how much?  Well the answer to the first question is yes.   Even for your lower priority races you need to back off but not in the same way.

  1. B Races:  Generally these races are important to you and may even be a test race or single event race where you want to do well.  Consider reducing your training volume and minimize the intensity about a week out from a B race to shed some fatigue.
  2. C Races:  These are low priority races often used as a fun substitute for hard training sessions.  You can train through these races but don’t overdo it.  Back off of your training volume a couple days before the race and minimize the intensity in the week leading into the race.

While these may be low priority remember you almost always go harder in a race.   Be sure to recover from your effort before you load up the intensity again.  Going out with your friends and pushing it in your local 10K on the weekend is lots of fun, and I’m all for it.  But if you try to jump right back into your regular training schedule by heading to the track a few days later you can quickly find yourself injured, mentally burned-out, or over-trained.

That’s it for this week. Until next time train safe, stay healthy, and hope to see you at the races.


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