Trust in Your Taper

You’ve been training for months, your race is only weeks away and you feel great. So you keep training hard and on race day you do reasonably well. But if you’d tapered your training you could have had a far better race. You could, in fact, have knocked minutes off your time.

Many triathletes fail to taper before a big race. “A proper taper makes a huge difference to my performance”, says Hallie Truswell, who’s been competing in triathlons for nine years. “I’ve done six Ironmans and all the tapers have been different. Once I get over the hump of the first week of tapering, everything begins to fall into place. I start to feel fresher, less groggy and everything becomes clearer”.

Less is More

Tapering works but many triathletes are reluctant to ease off their training because they think they’ll lose their hard-earned endurance or because they don’t know how to wind down their training.

A study from the University of Limburg, in the Netherlands, showed just how overtrained endurance athletes can be. Researchers tracked the changes in the cells of the leg muscles of Dutch runners as they prepared for a marathon.

After gradually increasing their training mileage to 48 miles per week, with long runs of up to 20 miles, the group ran a marathon. Almost 60 per cent of the runners showed muscle damage and depleted glycogen stores even beforethe marathon, despite doing a standard tapering programme the week before their race.

Slow Down

Research shows that triathletes will not lose aerobic fitness during a tapering period of one to three weeks if the taper is done properly; in fact most studies show that triathletes, runners, swimmers and cyclists have considerably improved performances when they taper.

Tapering puts the musculo-skeletal, cardiovascular, metabolic, respiratory and nervous systems into optimal condition for racing. It can help improve performance times, running economy, muscular strength, blood profiles, lactate tolerance and clearance.

Triathletes who follow a well-planned peaking and tapering programme before their big events stand to gain an advantage over their fellow competitors who don’t ease up. Various studies show that performance can be improved by up to six per cent, which may not seem much but can mean vital seconds or minutes in a race, depending on the distance.

Store up the Strength

Researchers who have looked at running economy (the oxygen cost of running at a submaximal pace) after tapering have found that runners require less oxygen and energy at a set speed, making them more economical. As a result, their energy fuels (glycogen and fats) are released more conservatively, and last longer, something that's definitely needed in a triathlon.

And there's more good news – muscular strength increases with tapering. Several studies on swimmers, runners, and cyclists show increases in strength and power following a taper. So – because a triathlon is composed of these three events – it’s safe to say that triathletes will experience similar strength gains.

You need huge amounts of glycogen to complete a triathlon. When those levels drop, you’re looking at a poor timeor, worse, a DNF. It now seems that more tapering before a triathlon is required than was previously thought, to allow muscle tissue to recover and for optimal muscle-glycogen stores. A study of cyclists has shown that muscle-glycogen levels increased from a glycogen boost of 17 per cent after a four-day taper, to 25 per cent after an eight-day taper.

Find the Balance

But all this does not mean your taper is simply a matter of slowing down. Chris Tremonte, a veteran of over 100 triathlons, from sprint to half-Ironman, knows this. “I definitely believe in continuing to do a bit of speed to keep the body awake, but I cut down on the duration of each interval and of the workout as a whole and I add more rest,” he says.

Runners in one study who did a high-intensity, lower duration taper (a series of 500-metre repeats), increased their muscle-glycogen stores by 15 per cent and improved their running time to exhaustion on a treadmill by over 20 per cent. In the same study, a second group, following a low-intensity, moderate-duration taper saw no increase in glycogen stores. 

On the next page: Find out how taper mentally as well as physically. 

Picture credit: Tim Robberts/Getty Images.