Tapering and peaking in triathlon: the art and the science | EP#119
The art and the science of tapering and peaking for triathlons uncovered.
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In this Episode you'll learn about:
- How big a performance improvement can you expect from tapering?
- What's the ideal taper duration?
- How should your training volume, intensity, and frequency change in the taper?
- What do we know from science about tapering, and how much is down to the art of coaching?
- How does tapering apply when having multiple races in a short time-span?
- Practical examples of the taper in training programs.
Source of information
- Tapering for triathlon competition, from 2011 by Inigo Mujika.
- Effects of tapering on performance - a meta-analysis, from 2007 by Bosquet and colleagues.
- Peaking for optimal performance: Research limitations and future directions, from 2009 by Pyne and colleagues in the Journal of Sports Sciences.
- See links and resources for other sources used during the podcast.
How much does tapering matter?
- You probably already know that tapering is the last period before your race where you reduce training load.
- It allows you to reach peak performance on race day because you have a reduced physiological and psychological stress level.
- As training load decreases, you will shed accumulated fatigue.
- When this happens, your fitness is allowed to shine through - also know as form.
- You are race ready!
- Scientific research points to an improvement of 2-3% from tapering.
- However results vary from 0.5-8% so there's a lot of variation.
- It's not a huge improvement, but it's definitely still worth doing.
- VO2max can improve during a taper, which is possibly the result of increased blood volume and red blood cell production.
- Running and swimming economy both tend to increase due to biomechanical or neurological factors, or both.
- Your glycogen stores can increase by 15% during this time.
- This is important because these stores are limited for athletes.
- The ability to maintain endurance performance for longer is improved when you have higher levels of glycogen stores.
- They are particularly important for Olympic distance triathlons and longer.
- However, there is individual variation to the effectiveness of triathlon tapers.
- Tapering is more of an art than a science.
- There are a lot of knowledge gaps in the research
- This is where having a coach can be invaluable.
- Individual variation comes from various aspects, e.g. how fast you recover, how fast you adapt to time zone changes if you travel for racing.
- There are individual variations in how much intensity you need during the taper.
- For example, Malcom Brown mentioned Vicky Holland and Non Stanford as examples of two athletes that taper very differently to each other.
- They placed 3rd and 4th in the Olympics in Rio, but approached it very differently.
- Even if you have similar characteristics compared to another athlete, how much you train causes individual differences in the taper strategy.
- If you train 8-10 hours a week, you most likely don't require a big adjustment compared to an athlete training 16-20 hours per week.
- There's a lot of trial and error involved in tapering.
Types of taper
- First there is the linear taper.
- For example: on a two week taper you'd drop training volume by 20% in the first week, and drop it by a further 20% in the second week.
- You drop training volume in steps.
- An even simpler version is the step taper.
- You reduce the training load in one single step - e.g. reduce it by 40% two weeks before the race and maintain this for the entire taper.
- There is evidence to suggest this is the least effective taper model.
- Then there is the exponential decay taper.
- There are two versions - slow or fast decay.
- You gradually reduce training volume and it gets progressively lower.
- The fast and slow decay refer to how quickly you reduce your volume at the beginning.
- Fast decay = bigger reduction at the beginning of the taper.
- Slow decay = more gradual.
- The meta-analysis mentioned grouped the exponential tapers with the linear taper and called them "progressive tapers" and compared them to step tapers.
- They found that progressive tapers were more effective.
Do you want to become faster?
A random, unstructured, or even over-engineered approach to training won't cut it. You need a clear, purposeful, progressive, and specific training plan.
Altering training load during the taper
- You alter your training load by altering the intensity and frequency of training and the duration of your taper.
- The performance improvements that are seen from tapering are highly sensitive to how much you reduce volume.
- The meta-analysis found that maximal performance gains are found if you reduce your training volume by 41-60%.
- This gives you a place to start when it comes to designing your own taper.
- In terms of frequency of workouts, research seems to suggest it's not beneficial to reduce the frequency during the taper.
- Frequency does interact with other variables (e.g. training volume) so it's difficult to isolate its effect.
- Some recommendations suggest you can slightly reduce your training frequency, but not by more than 20%.
- If you trained 10 times per week before taper, keep 8 workouts a week during taper.
- When intensity is investigated, research suggests it should not be reduced (relative to total training volume).
- What changes is how you do it.
- For example, if before taper you'd do 10 x 400 m on the track with a 45 second recovery. The same kind of workout in the taper might be 7 x 300 m with 1 minutes 15 seconds recovery.
- You make it much less taxing but you still include the time at intensity.
- Change workouts but don't reduce intensity. However, it will feel less intense.
- To be clear, you do reduce intensity but not as a percentage of your total training volume.
- The duration of the taper is something that we have some good data on.
- A duration of 8-14 days seems to be a good sweet spot.
- It's the borderline between positive influence of shedding fatigue and finding form, and the negative influence of de-training.
- Remember individual variation - there can be great results from tapers as short as a few days for sprint distance, up to 4 weeks for Ironman races.
- There is some interesting work with mathematical modelling that has been done on tapering.
- The training right before the taper influences the optimal duration of the taper.
- For example if you have a high training volume or high intensity before the taper you would require a longer taper.
- If you want to see these results in detail, check out the meta-analysis mentioned in the links and resources.
Tapering for different disciplines
- All taper studies have shown that intensity should be maintained across all three disciplines.
- Volume across each of the disciplines is different.
- For the swim, 41-60% reduction in volume has been shown to be optimal.
- For the bike & run, the range is wider with 21-60% reduction being suggested.
- It's important to find out what works for you.
- These studies have often been done in elite or sub-elite athletes so it's questionable whether you'd need a larger taper volume in swimming versus biking and running if you're not swimming as much.
- If you're swimming 20k per week or more, a bigger reduction in volume may be needed.
- Otherwise, you may not need to decrease it by any more than biking or running.
- Anecdotally, running is usually what is reduced more, but I haven't found any science backing this up.
- The run is really taxing and it takes longer to recover from so intuitively it makes sense that this is where you want to reduce volume the earliest, and possibly the most.
- This is anecdotal evidence but it's still important to consider.
- You want to reduce the absolute amount of intensity (e.g. 400m intervals become 200-300m intervals and recovery is longer).
- In many training plans, the taper period will have race pace intensity in it.
- There is one specific study on this topic that compared tapering with race pace workouts versus VO2max type intervals.
- Participants did a 10k run, then had a block of training and a taper, then did another 10k run.
- They found that whether they did VO2max type intensity or 10k race pace intervals in the taper, they still improved the same amount.
- Experiment with this and see what works best for you!
- Especially for Ironman athletes as your race pace will be quite low, and may not hit all your physiological systems during the taper, it may make more sense to use VO2max intensity rather than race pace.
- Theoretical modelling has shown that a high overload of training just before the taper results in higher performance gains.
- But it effects how long your taper should be and how much you will need to reduce training load.
- One experimental study tried to validate this overload concept.
- It showed that there is a very fine line.
- They had a control group of 12 people and an overload group of 22 people.
- The taper was for 4 weeks.
- They found that in the overload group, half of them ended up in a state defined by the authors as "functional overreaching" - i.e. not non-functional, but decreased performance and high perceived fatigue.
- In the performance testing within and after the taper, the athletes in the overload group who had not reached "functional overreaching", did the best in the performance tests.
- Their best performances still occurred in the first two weeks of the taper though, so this disagrees with the theoretical modelling work.
- A few of the "functionally overreached" athletes got ill and missed a few days of training.
- This shows that an overload period before a taper can work but it needs to be individualised to you and what you can handle.
Gaps in the knowledge
- This is more an art than a science.
- One scientific study that I read backs this up: The road to gold, training and peaking characteristics in the year prior to a gold medal endurance performance.
- They dug deep into what the taper before the gold medal looked like.
- The population was 11 elite skiers and biathletes, 4 male and 7 female, who all won either a World Championship or an Olympic gold medal.
- The tapering phase that they investigated was the 14 days before the medal.
- When comparing the 14 days with the 4 weeks before the taper:
- In the first week, the training volume only decreased (non-significantly) by 4%
- In the second week, the decrease was 15%, and also non-significant.
- This is much less than the scientific evidence of "ideal tapers" suggests, and these athletes went on to win Olympic gold medals!
- 4 of the athletes actually increased their training volume in the last seven days of the taper.
- When comparing the 14 days with the 4 weeks before the taper:
- Some of the world best endurance athletes are not following the scientific evidence based strategies, which shows how much variability there is here.
- Then again, it is difficult to generalise this to age-groupers because we have different training and recovery needs compared to elite athletes.
- Also, cross country skiing athletes race in World Cup races most weekends leading up to World Championship races so it's different to tapering for an 'A' race.
Race week example
- This example is from an athlete that I coach and he recently completed his first Olympic distance race of the year.
- This is an example of his week leading up to the race for an athlete that usually training 8-10 hours per week.
- 45 minutes recovery run, zone 1 or low zone 2.
- 45-50 minute swim, 2k (short for this athlete, he's used to 3-3.5k swims).
- Swim had intensity with 50m and 150m repeats.
- It also had race specific tools such as sighting and deck-ups, ideally done in a wetsuit even though it was a pool swim.
- Brick workout: 1 hour bike, 15 minute run
- On the bike: After the warm up there was a zone 3 ramp, and high cadence work. The main set was 8 x 1min at threshold intensity.
- On the run: first 5 minutes at Olympic distance race effort.
- 45 minute recovery ride.
- 30 minute swim, 1400m - similar to Monday but shorter.
- 50m and 100m reps.
- Still included sighting, deck ups and completed in a wetsuit.
- 30 minute run.
- 6 x 1min repeats at threshold or Olympic distance race pace with 2 minute recovery.
- Rest & travel day.
- 15 minute open water swim at the venue.
- Light intensity and builds, with a few 25m sprints.
- 15-20 bike ride for gear checking.
- Easy spin followed by 5 minute brick run.
- Reduced volume but still maintaining intensity.
- Intense workouts feel easier because the time at intensity is lower and there's longer recovery between intervals.
- One specific piece of advice: if you're a Training Peaks user, in your post-analysis go and check what your CTL and TSB values were on race day.
- Try to correlate those with if you have a good or a bad race - find out what you need.
- Be as particular analysing your taper as you are with your race.
- If you don't have a coach you can do this yourself, you need Training Peaks premium but it's definitely worth the investment!
Tapering for multiple races in a short time-span
- This is where science is really lacking because most taper studies investigate a big A race or a test performance.
- This is where the art side of coaching and individual variation are factors that weigh heavily.
- Having a coach is invaluable, but doing a proper analysis if you don't have a coach will be really important.
- There is one study that is interesting: Short term performance peaking in an elite cross-country mountain biker, by Rønnestad and colleagues in 2016.
- This case study investigated having a 7 day overload period of very high intensity interval training daily, followed by a 5 day step taper.
- This athlete had a race initially, then trained for 7 days. On day 7 after the first race he started with the high intensity training, and the week after that he started his taper.
- Overload period:
- The high intensity training consisted of 3 sets of 9.5 minutes: 30 second work intervals, 15 second recovery.
- 3 minute recovery between sets.
- The aim was to achieve the highest possible average power across all three sets.
- In addition he had 4 easy sessions of zone 1 riding of 1-1.5 hours.
- 5 day taper:
- Training volume reduced by 78%.
- They took measurements at baseline, in the overload week and in the taper week.
- Measurements in the taper week were muscle activation, VO2max, power output at certain sub-maximal blood lactate concentrations.
- The results:
- In the first race before the study started he finished 11th in the junior class of the UCI World Cup.
- On day 4 of the taper week he felt good and the measurements were all equal or better than before.
- 2 days later he raced, and he achieved his largest winning gap of the season in the National Cup.
- This shows how you can have one week of heavy overload, and a sharp taper, and have a great performance for a second race.
- As I've said though, this is highly individual and the art of peaking for multiple races needs to be well thought through with your coach.
- Find out through trial and error what works for you.
Additional considerations outside of training
- The main ones are recovery, nutrition and hydration, and travel.
- The most important recovery tool that you have is sleep.
- Less training permits more time for sleeping, and it can have tremendous performance benefits.
- Wearing compression garments can help get rid of soreness.
- Getting massages can also be good, but don't do this the day before the race.
- Hydration is important - the colour of your urine can be a good marker for that.
- The day before the race, you want to pre-load with electrolytes.
- As you reduce amount of exercise you need to reduce caloric intake to stay in energy balance and not gain excess weight.
- From 1-2 days before the race, a large proportion of your energy intake should be carbs to ensure your glycogen stores remain topped up.
- This is one of the factors that ensures tapers work.
- Science has proven than carb depletion followed by carb loading isn't necessary, but you need a large proportion of energy intake from carbs.
- For an Ironman - 2 days before the race.
- For Olympic & sprint - 1 day before the race.
- Travel fatigue and jet lag can all have an impact.
- This can occur even if you're not changing time zones.
- The effects may be longer lasting if you're crossing time zones.
- Make sure that the travel fatigue and jet lag are taken into consideration when you plan your taper.
- In your taper you want to:
- Decrease volume quite a bit, but remember it's individual.
- Maintain, or only slightly decrease frequency of workouts.
- Maintain intensity, but the nature of your intense workouts will change.
- Science has found that 8-14 days is an ideal duration for the taper, anecdotal evidence usually supports this but find out what works best for you.
- An exponential fast decay taper is potentially the best shaped taper, which means you reduce quite a bit 2 weeks out, and gradually reduce more and more.
- There are knowledge gaps - the art of coaching trumps science, and individuality is key.
- Pay attention to the taper when analysing your races and you will find what a successful taper recipe looks like for you.
Links, resources & contact
Links and resources mentioned
- "How to optimize your triathlon taper" - Scientific Triathlon blog post
- Tapering for triathlon competition (Mujika, 2011)
- Peaking for optimal performance: Research limitations and future directions (Pyne et al., 2009)
- Scientific Bases for Precompetition Tapering Strategies (Mujika and Padilla, 2003)
- Effects of Tapering on Performance: A Meta-Analysis (Bosquet et al., 2007)
- The Road to Gold: Training and Peaking Characteristics in the Year Prior to a Gold Medal Endurance Performance (Tønnessen et al., 2014)
- Short-term performance peaking in an elite cross-country mountain biker (Rønnestad et al., 2016)
- Speciﬁc Intensity for Peaking: Is Race Pace the Best Option? (Munoz et al. 2015)
- A theoretical study of taper characteristics to optimize performance (Thomas and Busso, 2005)
- Functional Overreaching: The Key to Peak Performance during the Taper? (Aubry et al., 2014)
- Level up your triathlon using Training Peaks | EP#39
- Hydration, sodium and cramping with Andy Blow | EP#49
Connect with host Mikael Eriksson
Hi! I'm your host Mikael,
I am a full-time triathlon coach and an ambitious age-group triathlete. My goal is podium at the Finnish national championships within the next few years.
I first started the website Scientific Triathlon in autumn 2015 as a passion project to share my learnings with a larger triathlon audience. Later on, in early 2017 I started the podcast That Triathlon Show.
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