People often ask me what’s the best way to taper before a competition.
- How many days before the race?
- How many hours of training?
- What level of intensity vs volume?
- Should I take one or two days before my race?
- And what is “tapering,” anyway?
The Definition of Taper
Let’s start with the basics: what is tapering? A taper, or sharpening time, is a period before a competition and after a training period that enables an overcompensation effect. After several weeks (or months) of training, reducing training intensity and volume enables the body to recover before competition day.
The Ideal Taper
If there were one perfect formula that everybody could use to be well-rested and in top shape on D-day, it would be very simple! Unfortunately, this is just not the case. Some individuals need more rest, others need less. The taper period is different for each athlete; it depends on how much you have been training in the past weeks and how important a particular competition is.
Sometimes, I advise my athletes to do a triathlon, a duathlon, or another competition as a “b” race or a training race that will help them prepare for a bigger event. In that case, when it is a less important race, their taper is shorter, or even non-existent.
For a 70.3, an Olympic triathlon, or a sprint, 6 to 7 days of taper are often enough. Usually, if I’m doing a 70.3 on a Sunday, I’ll do my last big training on the previous Saturday or Sunday. This final training session will often consist of several bike race series, some of them at race intensity or more. Sometimes, my last major training is a long bike session with a few cruise speed intervals followed by a race one.
On the days following this major workout, I’ll do a few shorter ones to recover from the past weeks of intense work. For instance, instead of swimming for one and a half hours or two hours, I’ll only swim for one hour or an hour fifteen, but I’ll still include some 50-meter lengths faster than my usual 70.3 speed and a few 100 meters at race speed. It is essential to do several higher intensity intervals to keep your body alert and to avoid losing all your hard work from the past weeks. These short intervals let our bodies know that even though we’re training less, it isn’t vacation or hibernation time!
For an Ironman
The taper is longer when you’re preparing for an Ironman: between one and two weeks. Since it’s such a long event, where it’s essential to feel fresh and free, the taper is adjusted accordingly. Also, training for an Ironman is often longer and more intense given the substantial number of workouts it requires. It simply takes more time to recover from this kind of major training period. However, just because the taper is longer doesn’t mean that those two weeks are rest weeks. Instead, your training load decreases gradually. For example, a professional or elite athlete will train 30 to 35 hours a week during their intense training block. Their first taper week will include 20 to 25 hours of training, then they’ll go down to 10 to 15 hours for the week before the race.
Most people will take one or two days off before racing. So, if the race is on Sunday, Friday will be a rest day and Saturday will be an activation day. Some prefer to take their rest day three days before racing (i.e. on Thursday if the race is on Sunday). Others don’t like to take a day off too close to race day, as they want to keep their body awake and active. It’s really personal. As for me, I am not used to taking a whole day off during my usual training routine, so I prefer not to take a full rest day just before a race either. Instead, I like to do a small swim or a bit of easy biking.
The day before the race is an activation day. For triathletes, I recommend that they do some of each sport. It’s important to bike with all of your racing gear on to make sure that everything is working well. You don’t want to have a surprise on race day! Usually, I’ll swim for 15 or 20 minutes and race for 30 to 40 minutes with some intervals. The goal of intervals is to reactivate your body after several relaxed days, without getting too tired.
During your taper, your workouts should be short and not too intense. One of the most common mistakes is to go too fast on the days before the race, because the atmosphere onsite, the presence of other competitors, and pre-race stress can push people to go faster than planned in the lead-up to the big event.
Antoine Jolicoeur Desroches
Triathlete & Coach