How to Taper for a Triathlon
The training is done, the miles are logged, and the race that was once months away is now right around the corner. Your body is ready to cover the distance, but do you know how to tune your engine so that you’re ready to crush the course (and your competition) when the gun goes off? This is when it’s time to taper.
Tapering – the science of gradually reducing training volume in the weeks leading up to an event – is often considered a dark art. What might work for one person can prove disastrous for another. But there are a handful of general principles that everyone can follow to increase their odds of success. And after more than a decade of competing as a pro triathlete, I’ve amassed a bank of experience that can help you customize your taper so that you arrive at the start line in optimal condition.
How to Taper: Seven to 10 Days out from Race Day
The length of your taper will depend on the distance of your race. Tapering for an IRONMAN is quite different than tapering for a sprint or Olympic distance event, but the basic advice is the same: Gradually reduce your training volume so that you arrive at the starting line fully recovered and primed for peak performance.
If you’re a novice tapering for a shorter distance triathlon (sprint or Olympic), start tapering seven days out from your race. As a general rule, you should cut your normal training volume by 50 percent across all three sports. Don’t skip speed work thinking you need to “rest.” On the contrary, pepper in some race pace efforts to remind your body what it needs to do on race day. A good example is a 20-minute easy run with four to six strides (i.e., 20 to 30 second bursts that build up to race pace) at the end.
For a 70.3 event, I typically do my last hard run 10 days out from race day. In the week leading up to it, I do one or two runs that include some race pace work, one or two bike rides, and two to three swims. As swimming and cycling place less stress on the body, I’ve found that it’s OK to keep the intensity of those workouts high for longer into the taper. I usually do my last hard ride four to five days before my race, and keep swimming intensity high right up until race day.
Two Days out from Race Day
I like to take a complete day off to give my body and mind some deep rest and relaxation, so it’s “Feet Up Friday” if I’m competing on Sunday. Many pro athletes—myself included—try to stay in their hotel rooms as much as possible for these 24 hours. If by the end of the day you’re starting to feel like a caged animal, then you’re doing it right.
The Day Before
Do a little bit of everything. If I’m racing a 70.3 the next morning, I’ll do a 20 to 30 minute swim (ideally on the race course), a short bike ride (60 to 90 minutes), and a brief run (10 to 15 minutes straight off the bike). This is as much an opportunity to mentally rehearse your race as it is a chance to check equipment and “stay loose.” Even an hour total split between the three sports will help prime your body and mind for action the following day.
Additional Tapering Tips
1) Cool your jets
One of the toughest parts of a taper—especially for longer distance racing—is how you’ll feel. It is perfectly normal to feel tired, sluggish and restless; your body has become accustomed to doing much more exercise than you’re currently doing, and the drop in activity leaves it yearning for more. Ignore the temptation to do more. When not training, follow the golden rule of tapering: Stay off your feet as much as possible. Don’t stand if you can sit. Don’t sit if you can lie. And don’t move if you can remain still. Of course, most people will still have work, family, and social commitments (what? You mean you have a life outside of triathlon?!) that will force them to bend the golden rule, but try not to. As much as possible, rest, relax, and get plenty of sleep.
2) Dial in your diet
Eating well and staying hydrated are key. Now is not the time to experiment with your diet. Continue to eat in a way similar to how you did pre-taper, but be mindful of not overdoing it on fiber—excessive amounts of which can cause gastrointestinal distress—beginning 72 hours before your race. Carbohydrates are your friends during this time, but so are protein and fat, so don’t ignore them.
The night before a race, my go-to meal is grilled chicken with rice or baked sweet potato, and I’m careful to eat it early enough for it to digest fully before bed. Overnight, I’ll leave a cup of rolled oats to soak in the fridge, so that I can combine them with almond milk, water, salt, and a heavy splash of maple syrup in the morning. I like to eat my pre-race brekkie at least two hours before my event to make sure everything is out of my stomach when the gun goes off.
3) Get your mind right
Take time in the days leading up to your event to prepare yourself mentally for what you have to do. Listen to music that pumps you up. Visualize yourself competing well and achieving a new PR. Replace negative thoughts with positive ones. And form a game plan for when negative thoughts creep into your consciousness during the race.
I use mantras, mental images, and songs to “fight the demons” when I’m competing. The songs usually come from a playlist I create specifically to motivate me pre-race. When tough moments pop up, I start singing those songs (to myself, of course!). They take me back to times during training when I felt invincible and awesome. I also repeat mantras; “You are strong and resilient” and “You don’t get to quit today” are two of my favorites. And in the closing stages of a race—when strength comes from the heart as much as the head—I’ll imagine that all of my nephews are at the finish line. That never fails to toughen me up and get me there faster.
4) Test your gear
It’s important to ensure that all of your equipment is in good working order at least 10 days out from your event. I typically check my gear (bike, wetsuit, shoes, food, etc.) two weeks beforehand to ensure everything is race-ready. I’ll look for nicks or damage in my tires or wheels, inspect my wetsuit for holes, and assemble my refueling snacks to make sure everything is good to go. Bottom line: Be prepared. There’s nothing worse than a last-minute panic on race day.
5) Don’t overthink things
Tapering might seem tricky, but the best tapers are those in which you relax, listen to your body, and appreciate the hard work you put in during training. All that remains is to have a great race. Good luck!