Unraveling the mystery of tapering after a season of triathlon training
You can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel as you approach the end of an arduous and dutiful training season for your big triathlon finale. With so many options and opinions on the “correct” way to taper for proper culmination of your season, you may feel rightfully conflicted. Add to that the confounding variable that is the three separate sports within triathlon. So, what’s a triathlete to do?
First, a little hard truth. There is no scientifically proven, one-size-fits-all methodology for tapering. At least, not when it comes to swimming.
The reason for difficulty in designing the perfect taper is that it is a highly individualized training tactic. The taper must be based on several variables, starting with the quality and quantity of the training you’ve done, the distance and difficulty of your target race, and your unique physiology.
Assess Your Training Quality and Quantity
Before you can begin developing a strategy for tapering, you need to make an honest and accurate assessment of the swim training you’ve done. Have you been consistent with swimming at least three times per week? Have you built up your training volume by doing increasingly longer workouts? Have you kept a training journal and kept track of changes in your race pace?
These are the keys to building a foundation from which you can decrease volume to be able to feel fresh and fast on race day. The objective of taper is to keep your endurance and stamina intact while resting just enough. The stronger your swim foundation, the more potentially effective your taper can be.
If you decide that you haven’t built a sufficient training base, you’ll need to make less drastic decreases in training time and volume. The endurance gains from cycling and running training will help, but you’ll still want to plan a more conservative swimming taper lasting no more than the week prior to the race.
Taper for Your Target Race
Evaluate the specific demands of your target race, including the distance of the swim, the type of environment (ocean, lake, river, etc.), and the likely water conditions (swells, waves, chop, etc.). Consider where you’d like to position yourself at the start of the race, whether you plan to be in front of the pack or in a less aggressive position. If, for example, you like to put yourself front and center for an in-water race start, you should be prepared for at least 100-200 yards of fast pace before you can settle into your comfortable race pace. If you prefer to hang back, you need to be prepared to do battle for position to assume your preferred pace. In any case, it’s more likely than not that you’ll need to be ready for any challenges in position and pace.
These factors are important to take into consideration, as these will affect your energy expenditure in ways that are difficult to predict. Therefore, in order to be appropriately prepared, you need to be careful in designing a taper to make sure you’re not under- or over-rested.
Evaluate Your Individual Physiology
Finally, you need to accurately assess your own athletic profile. For what distance and amount of time can you sustain your performance in an endurance race and do so in consistent form? You can identify the limits of your endurance by signs like burning in your muscles, gasping for breath, unintentional shortening of your stroke and dropping elbows, and excessive fatigue when lifting your head to sight.
If you feel that you are sufficiently trained for the distance and demands of your target race, congratulations! You can gradually back down from your training volume over the course of no more than two weeks prior to the race. You’re trying to hit the sweet spot of maintaining endurance and maximizing the benefits of rest. Listen to your body; don’t succumb to the temptation to rest too much because you’re feeling bursts of energy. You want to feel that way on race day, and there’s a very narrow window.
If you feel that your race distance and demands exceed the limits of your endurance, it’s a sign that you’re under-trained and should design a taper with minimal rest. Too much resting and reduction in training volume will only put you further in debt.
If you’re technically-inclined and want to quantify your aerobic fitness, get your VO2 max tested by an exercise physiologist or personal trainer with the necessary equipment and capabilities to measure your maximal oxygen uptake. With this data, you can design a taper strategy most appropriate for you.