How to Taper Before a Triathlon Race



Hitting your peak performance come race day is something that all athletes strive to achieve. Of course, we all know that training is a critical component of making this happen; however, performance is not as simple as being a fit as possible. There are two components to the optimal performance equation: fitness + freshness = peak performance. If an athlete is really fit but exhausted, they will likely not realize their actual peak performance. Likewise, if they are really fresh but have done little training, they would likely end up with the same result of falling short of their peak.

We have talked about training for swimming, cycling, and running previously (link), but what about the other side of the equation? How do we reduce our training before racing to recover and realize our full racing potential? The training phase is known as the “Taper”. This article talks about the taper before your triathlon competition and some critical factors to consider when designing a taper, which are great to know, even though the TRIQ app takes care of them for you. Luckily, tapering is a subject that has been researched a lot in the scientific literature, so we’vegot plenty of helpful facts to cover.

Triathlon Tapering: Definition

A good starting point to circle in on getting close to peak performance come race day is to define the term „tapering" (for our international audience: the word "taper" by dictionary definition means "gradual narrowing“). Tapering refers to "a purposeful reduction in training load in the days or weeks before a competition to provide the athlete with rest and recovery to facilitate the best performance". Crucially, tapering strategies need to balance the need for rest and recovery whilst being vigilant to prevent any detraining, while reducing training load.

The good news is: We know that tapering works! It WILL make you faster come race day. A 2007 meta-analysis led by Laurent Bosquet and Iñigo Mujika of 27 experimental studies reported that tapering per se has been shown to have positive effects (4.3% performance improvement). So let’s get into why that is from a physiological standpoint. But then, more importantly, let’s look at how to implement and build the ultimate taper!

Triathlon Tapering: The Physiology

Physiologically speaking, what are the changes that occur in our bodies through tapering that facilitate peak performance? Studies have shown that after a taper, we tend to see an increase in our testosterone-to-cortisol ratio. This is indicative of increased anabolic and decreased catabolic activity. In addition, we see favorable changes in our blood, such as an expansion of red cell volume and increased haemoglobin concentrations for oxygen transport. And finally, we see decreased circulating creatine kinase, an enzyme found in skeletal muscle that is released into the circulation when muscles are damaged through intense training.

Building Your Triathlon Taper: The Variables to Consider

So, we know that tapering works, but what variables need to be considered when designing a taper? The first, of course, is the event we are tapering for. Tapers for long triathlons, for instance, are going to look quite different than those for strength or team sports. So, again, the principle of specificity is vital here. Us triathletes still have to swim, bike and run during our taper!

Different Triathlon Tapering Models

The second variable to consider is the model of tapering we are going to use. The reduction in training load (load = intensity x volume) during a taper can occur in a progressive, gradual or as a steep step-down fashion in training load. Those are the three main types of tapering models and they are usually called “linear”, “exponential”, and “step” tapering.

Linear Tapering

The first basic tapering model is the linear model. This describes a taper in which the training load progressively decreases over the days and/or weeks before a competition in a linear fashion. This means that with each training day during the taper, the training load is increasingly reduced compared to what would have been performed on that same day during the last training cycle.

Exponential Tapering

The exponential tapering model is similar to the linear model. However, only the progressive reduction in training load follows an exponential rather than linear pattern. This means that there is an initial rapid reduction in training load, followed by a slower decline.

Step Tapering

Finally, in contrast, the step tapering model involves a drop to a specific, reduced training load that is maintained throughout the taper. This is the simplest tapering model.

So…is there an optimal tapering model? Well, probably not. The 2007 meta-analysis previously mentioned found unclear results on this topic. What is perhaps more important is how we manipulate training load through volume, intensity, and frequency. So let’s take a look at that!

Training Intensity, Frequency, and Volume Manipulation During Tapering

There are three main variables to consider when designing a taper: intensity (how hard you are training), the frequency (how often you train), and finally volume (how much you are training (total hours or km).

Training Intensity during Taper

Of all the variables, training intensity during tapering has the clearest line of research. In that, training intensity should be maintained throughout the tapering period. Meta-analysis suggested that tapers with reduced intensity had no positive effects on performance, whereas tapers that maintained intensity improved performance in all triathlon disciplines.

Training Frequency during Taper

The research on training frequency during tapering is less clear. However, the balance of evidence is that training frequency should be maintained during tapering. A meta-analysis suggests tapers that maintain training frequency have a small positive effect on performance overall. However, in triathlon, where athletes have a high “frequency” of training, it is common for tapers to slightly reduce training frequency.

Training Volume during Taper

Taking the above into account, we now come to training volume. First, and quite simply, if training load decreases during tapering, but training intensity and frequency are maintained, volume must therefore be reduced. And indeed, there is a clear, large positive effect observed when training volume is reduced by 41-60%. In support of this, studies have also shown that tapers are ineffective when training volume is maintained, but the intensity is reduced.

Triathlon Tapering Duration

One of the critical questions, of course, is how long athletes should taper for? For example, should a taper begin 1 week before the race, 2 weeks, 3 weeks? Of course, the answer to this is “it depends”. When it comes to tapering, there are some individual factors that we also must consider. Things like the athlete’s training status, chronic training load, the training load over the last cycle, desired outcome of the race and an athlete’s preferences/previous experience. Indeed, the taper is very individual, with some athletes simply preferring longer or shorter taper. However, the research is also clear that the best tapers seem to be within 8-14 days. But where each athlete fits within that spectrum is to be determined by those individual factors already outlined.

Take-home Points

To summarize, it’s clear when it comes to hitting peak performance on race day, a taper is a “must-have” and a critical consideration in your training program. While the chosen tapering model isn’t that important, the taper should maintain training intensity and frequency while reducing training volume by 41-60%. At TRIQ, these are the critical components we consider when building tapers. Our algorithm looks back at your individual training and will try to create the ultimate taper to have you rocking come race day! After all, if there’s a 4.3% improvement in performance up for grabs, we’ve got to take it! Happy training and racing!

Stay tuned