Getting your taper right can make as much as a 6% difference to your race performances.
We all KNOW how difficult it can be to shave seconds, let alone minutes, off your PBs. So what if I said that the type of training you do in the week leading up to your A-race could improve your performance by as much as six per cent? To put that in perspective, it could mean the difference between finishing an Olympic-distance race in 2hrs 30mins or 2hrs 21mins. And for once, the science is clear on this – correctly execute this ‘taper’ period and you’ll get a step change in your speed and strength which will translate directly into improved performance. What’s more, I haven’t mentioned the best bit yet – these improvements come as a result of training less, not more.
Simply put, tapering is a gradual reduction in your training volume (distance and duration) as you approach race day, which allows your body to fully recover and get stronger. However, the intensity of these shorter workouts needs to be kept high. The body has a relatively poor memory for speed and there are also physiological reasons to keep intervals short and sharp.
Recent molecular biology studies on sprint intervals by a Canadian research group have shown that flat-out efforts of 30 seconds or less can increase the muscles’ ability to use oxygen, increase power, improve economy and as a result, endurance. What’s more, most of these benefits are seen within days, not weeks. This is probably because efforts of this nature hit muscle fibres that don’t ordinarily receive that level of stimulus so they adapt very quickly. Keeping intervals short also reduces the overall metabolic stress on the body, so recovery can continue until race day.
Now that we’ve established that a taper is worth doing, what does a good one look like? Well, one athlete’s body will respond quite differently to another, so you’ll need to experiment before a few low-priority races with different lengths of taper and types of workout within that period. However, there are a few general rules you should apply.
An effective taper must always involve a reduction in training volume of at least 60 per cent, while frequency of training should be kept the same or reduced only slightly. Intensity must be kept as high or slightly higher than usual and maintained right up to race day.
The less well trained you are, the longer the taper will need to be, as fitness affects how quickly you can recover. Also, the longer the A-race, the longer the taper – seven days may be right for an Olympic-distance event, 10 days to two weeks for a half, and two to three weeks for a full Ironman. If in doubt, go with a longer taper rather than a shorter one.
Finally, the day before the race is not the time to have a rest day. Instead, include a few intervals of one to two minutes at race pace within a short, non-impact session (swim or bike) to ‘prime the engine’ and wake up the metabolic pathways within the muscles ready for the following day. Apply the science correctly and that PB will soon be yours.
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