My thoughts on tapering

The significance of tapering

The focal point of a taper period or tapering is to ready the body, mind and spirit for a peak performance on race day.  This period of training fits roughly between your last Build period and race day.  The significance of tapering is to freshen your body, mind and spirit by ridding it of accumulated fatigue.  As fatigue vacates the body one should start to feel rejuvenated, energetic, sharp, snappy and excited to race.

If one does not understand the significance of tapering, like most new endurance athletes, then ones athletic performance could be handicapped. Most new athletes or those making endurance sports more than just a hobby have a difficult time benefiting from tapering.  I believe that the major obstacle preventing athletes from benefiting from a taper is the way in which they view their fitness.  More often than not athletes associate their fitness levels with how hard they train or the level of fatigue they have accumulated.  If I'm very fatigued then I must have worked hard and be getting faster.  This couldn't be further from the truth.  Training is when an athlete actually breaks their body down.  It is through a recovery period or taper when the body repairs itself, adapts to the stress it has endured and as a result becomes stronger and faster. Ones fitness level or potential can only be realized after a period of recovery.

Once an athlete realizes the significance of a taper then the question arises,How do I taper?  This is not the easiest of questions to answer and is very unique to the individual.  If there was one template to follow then every athlete would have the potential to display their top fitness level on race day.  Unfortunately the perfect taper is a combination of science and art.

I have been participating in triathlon for a handful of years and competed in dozens of races and I have only started to dial in my taper.  Here is what i believe should be applied to a proper taper.

First, an athlete must be comfortable with a progressive reduction in stress load during the taper.  This is easier said then done since most athletes find comfort in their constant state of fatigue.  These sensations of feeling tired are handcuffed to improving level of fitness.  During a taper the volume of activity should be reduced however the intensity should remain high, it should be race specific.  In other words the pace, effort, power, HR you expect to exert during the race should be applied to your training sessions during your taper.

Next, the length of a taper depends on the ability to recover and the block of training preceding it.  A long building block of training should warrant the appropriate amount of recovery/taper.  Personally, I have started to figure out that I need around 9 days to taper properly for a half ironman race.  My coach and I have figured out that 9 days allows for just enough fatigue to dissipate while keeping my fitness level high.  For an Olympic distance race my taper period is 4-5 days in length. As compared to some of my training partners and fellow athletes I tend to take a couple extra days to taper.

Most athletes are in a constant state of fatigue, a direct consequence of training.  It is this familiarity with fatigue that skews an athletes view of their fitness level.  If I'm tired, I've worked hard.  if I've worked hard then my fitness is improving. If my fitness is improving then I'm getting faster therefore, I'm comfortable and confident with being fatigued. When I'm not fatigued I must be losing fitness therefor, I'm getting slower.  Athletes must remember that training breaks down the body, mind and spirit and recovery or tapering allows the body, mind and spirit to heal, adapt and grow. Please understand that fatigue and freshness are indirectly related and you can't have both.  As fatigue increases, freshness decreases.  As fatigue decreases, freshness increases.  The significant aspect to this relationship is timing the correlation between these two variables.  Too long of a taper could leave the athlete feeling flat or worse, a loss of too much fitness. Too short a taper and the athlete will not be sufficiently rested.

An an athlete progresses through the taper period a feeling of invincibility, strength, power, excitement start to develop.  Please do not test or try to prove your newly acquired levels of fitness during any training sessions.  Stick to the guidelines of your taper and save the race day effort, excitement and new fitness for race day.

Just as one practices their swimming, biking and running, athletes need to practice their taper.  I would strongly encourage athletes to experiment with their taper leading up to less important races such as a "B" or "C" level priority race.  Athletes can also practice their tapers leading up to benchmark testing.

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