When Should You Taper for A Triathlon? How To Properly Do It!

Training programs for endurance events like triathlons can be found all over the internet. These programs help walk athletes through the months of preparations it takes to be ready for race day. No two programs are exactly alike. Some might have more volume (hours of training), and others might be lighter.

Some programs might focus more on one sport while others are balanced among all 3. Training programs can be developed to help athletes of all levels of ability to prepare for their target event.

One thing that almost every program has in common is the increase in training volume as the athlete gets closer to the race.

Week one might start out with 3 hours of total training, but by week 8 that total could be something like 5 hours. This increase in training load is purposeful and helpful in making endurance athletes stronger and maybe even faster.

Each week, the total time spent swimming, biking and running is increased by a small amount. The body then adapts to that increased stress and becomes able to handle more and longer workouts.

An interesting thing happens though as the training programs get very close to race day. In almost every case, the training load DECREASES dramatically as the event approaches. This decrease is known as the taper period.

The taper period is included to let our bodies rest, recuperate, and build up energy stores that can then be released during the race.

When should you taper for a triathlon? Tapering occurs in the final few days before an endurance race or event. The exact timing of the taper period is determined by the length of the targeted triathlon event. The longer the event, the longer the planned taper period should be.

For shorter events like a sprint or Olympic triathlon, tapering for 4-7 days just before the race is enough time. For Half-Ironman distance events, the taper period should be closer to 10-14 days. When it comes to the Ironman, it is recommended to start tapering off your training load as much as 3 weeks before the race.


What Does It Mean to Taper?

Tapering is a commonly used term that refers to the practice of gradually decreasing training load as the day of the event approaches. By doing so, the athlete is allowing their body to rest and build up its energy stores to an optimum level.

Tapering does not necessarily mean slowing down. The goal is to decrease the total volume of training while keeping up the intensity level.

Let’s say for example that your normal Wednesday bike workout is to ride for 2 hours at an average of 15mph. During the first week of your taper period, you would want to decrease the time of the ride to 90-100 minutes, but still keep up that 15mph average speed.

During the taper, it is also customary to cut out weight training. Since the goal of the taper is to allow muscles to heal and rest, we don’t want to tear them down or stress them out by lifting a bunch of heavy weights.

It is ideal to stop lifting weights 7-10 days before the race. This will allow the muscles plenty of time to recover to full strength by the time you hit the starting line.

How Do You Taper Correctly?

To properly taper, you want to decrease your total training volume by 20-25% each week as your race approaches. Remember to keep up the intensity levels even as your workouts get shorter.

Here are a few other practices that will help you to have a successful taper period.

Watch your diet

Be mindful of what you are eating, and try to focus on adhering to good nutritional standards. At the same time that you are tapering off your training, you’ll want to gradually reduce the total number of calories you take in.

You certainly don’t want to gain an unneeded pound or two in the weeks before the race. You want to keep your weight a constant by balancing the amount of food you eat with the amount you burn through training.

Cut out weights

As mentioned above, it is a good idea to cut out weight lifting during the final week or so before the race. If you feel that you absolutely need to continue lifting then you’ll want to lighten the load.

Lifting smaller amounts of weight will help you avoid breaking down the muscles that you are going to depend on during the race.

Throw in an extra rest day

The taper period is about letting your body rest, rebuild and prepare itself for the upcoming race. Many training programs advise athletes to add in an additional day of rest just before the target event.

By resting for an extra day the body will more effectively be able to stock up on the glycogen that it will need to use as fuel during the race.

Keep your mind occupied

The decrease in training just before a race can greatly impact an athlete’s state of mind. To me, this might just be the trickiest aspect of tapering. During the taper, the training program is telling us to do less and less as the race approaches.

At the same time, many of us question whether we’ve done enough training to help us reach our goals. This conundrum can be slightly maddening. In fact, the term “taper madness” has been used to describe this exact state of mind.

The best way to stave off taper madness is to keep your mind busy. Try to distract yourself with fun or interesting (non-training related) activities during your taper weeks. The more you are focused on things other than thinking or obsessing about the upcoming race, the less stressful the taper period can be.


What Happens if You Don’t Taper for Your Race?

The world is definitely not going to end if you decide not to taper off your training as the race day approaches. However, maintaining high training loads all the way up to the event will lead to less than optimal performance. Forgoing the taper period can also place athletes at a higher risk of injury.

When athletes choose not to taper, this is known as training through a race. This practice prevents the body from storing up extra glycogen. It also means that an athlete will be going into a race with muscles that are already fatigued from training. Both of those factors mean it is not likely to have a great result on race day.

Some athletes will choose to train through a shorter race and use it as a practice run before their goal race.

This can be helpful, especially for newer triathletes who have never experienced a multi-sport event. They aren’t (or shouldn’t be) looking for a personal best performance. Instead, they want to experience the event, try out their transition techniques, and be better prepared for their true targeted event.

The important thing to remember about training through a race is that the body’s systems have not had a chance to rest. This means that you shouldn’t try to take on the practice race with 100% effort.

Overextending yourself during the trial race is risky and can easily lead to an injury that might sideline you from the actual goal triathlon.

After reading this article, you should now know the proper timing and best practices for a successful taper period before your triathlon.

That means you should be able to head into your race knowing you are well-rested and ready to do your best. Good luck!

Brad Birky

Brad Birky is an endurance athlete and trained chef who has qualified for and completed the Boston Marathon as well as multiple Ironman distance triathlons

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