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How to Taper Like a Pro

By Ross Hartley | Oct. 01, 2019, 2 p.m. (ET)

proper tapering is an important part of the training process

Tapering is a general term used in endurance sports to describe the reduction of training prior to a specific events/races. The physical goal with tapering is to strip away fatigue while minimizing fitness loss as much as possible to be the freshest (least amount of fatigue) and thus fastest (most amount of fitness) on race day. 

During the build up for a specific event, you complete training sessions to help build your fitness. However, with these training sessions and building of fitness comes fatigue. Improving fitness goes hand in hand with growing fatigue. As I wrote about in The Growth Equation, Stress + Rest + Preparation = Growth:

The best in the world are the best in the world because they consistently and repeatedly perform at that level. They perform at that level because they train (stress) at that level, recover (rest) at that level and their habits (preparation) are at that elite level. Growth is a recipe made up of three ingredients: stress, rest and preparation. Of the three ingredients, stress is the most commonly recognized variable linked with growth. The harder one works, the more growth one will see. This works up to a point, and then operates under the law of diminishing returns.

With this in mind, I believe that the three variables in the growth equation are all directly related. As stress increases, rest should increase, with the preparation increasing as well to produce the maximum growth. A disparity between increasing and decreasing the variables will not result in maximal, if any, growth. For a lot of people, putting in the effort is not the issue preventing them from improving. Rather, it’s recognizing and embracing the link between the other variables, rest and preparation, in conjunction with stress.

Your body loses fatigue relatively quickly compared to losing fitness. However, a consequence of trying to reduce fatigue as much as possible is a loss of fitness, as well. Reduction of fatigue is accomplished by more than normal rest and a reduced training load. This has to be for a relatively short amount of time to limit the amount of fitness lost. Again, the goal is to be the freshest (least amount of fatigue) and fastest (most amount of fitness) on race day.

Specifically looking at the taper period before a targeted race, I believe in operating under two principles:

  • The closer you get to race day, the more your training should simulate the race and its demands. Law of Specificity.
  • Both time spent at this specific intensity as well as total overall volume (workout duration and weekly volume) are decreased as race day approaches.

One big misconception I had for a long time was the role of intensity and duration in tapering. Intensity should become more and more race-like as race day approaches. So for example if you are doing a marathon, you should not be doing 200 sprints on the track right before the race. Rather, intervals at/around goal race pace is the best way to prepare your body — physically and mentally —for the race. Specific intensity should be maintained as you taper your training.

The tricky part is how long this tapering period lasts and what it actually looks like. The length of the tapering period and its contents are dependent on a lot of things:

  • Length and intensity of race
  • Amount of training leading up to the race
  • Importance of the race and future planned races
  • The individual athlete
  • Outside of training stressors (family/work/social/life stress, amount of sleep, etc.)
  • Weather
  • Travel logistics

We humans are not robots; we do not consistently and repeatedly perform the same every time no matter the circumstance. The preparation that worked for one race might not work for another race due to different influences. Plan your work and work your plan with the principles laid out in this article.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.