Thanks to Dave Bryan for the question on ‘the optimal way to taper for a half-ironman’.
We would like to wish him, Ben Holmes and Shaun Clarke all the best in their upcoming half-ironman in Geelong. Their race is in 2 weeks so this article will outline some guidelines for their final 2 weeks.
While this article is for these athletes completing an event lasting 4-6 hours, there are many takeaways for athletes of all kinds.
'Tapering' is technique used commonly by athletes. It involves decreasing training load coming into an event, in an attempt to reach your physiologic fitness peak. Peaking refers to getting your body (and mind) to be at its highest level of preparedness before an event. Tapering allows your body to recover (decreasing fatigue and soreness), adapt to the training and compete in an optimal state.
Tapering and peaking is common amongst athletes where there is a specific date in mind (i.e. Ironman, Olympic athletes, fighters). You could also see ‘mini-tapers’ in team sport athletes (i.e. a footballer having their hardest session on a Wednesday followed by a couple of light days, before a game Saturday).
If we go back to Hans Selye's - 'General Adaptation Syndrome', there are 3 phases when adapting to any training stimulus.
The ‘Alarm phase’ which makes up the training session. You actually get ‘less fit’ after completing a session. But only for a small window of time, depending on how large the stimulus is. If you go out and run a 10km time trial, rest half an hour and do it again, your time will be worse. If you do another one in a week’s time, your time may improve. This is because the body has had time to go through the resistance phase.
The ‘Resistance phase’ is where ‘supercompensation’ takes place (presuming you’ve had enough rest). Supercompensation is the rebound effect seen during recovery where our body responds, adapts and gets better. You body says “shit, I didn’t like how fast you ran that 10k the other day, I’m going to put some things in place to make sure we don’t go through that again” – simplified down obviously, but you get the point. These changes may be increasing the size of the heart (volume or thickness), improving fuel storage, increasing capillary density at the muscle or in the lungs etc. There’s a huge amount of change that can take place in order for you to deal with that run better the next time. But this ONLY happens when we’ve allowed enough recovery time.
The last phase is the ‘Exhaustion phase’. Ideally, we don’t reach this phase. It’s when we’ve had too much stress (from training and life) and not enough recovery time. It happens when your body is trying to adapt to what you’ve recently put it through and you keep beating on it with more and more training, your body goes into exhaustion. This may be accompanied by sickness, injury and poor performance. In preparation for an endurance event like an Ironman, it’s likely that you’ve been knocking on the ‘Exhaustion Phase’ door.
If you’ve been training hard but allowing enough time to recover and you feel some general fatigue and a little soreness, that’s normal. It’s likely that you’re bouncing back and forth between the Alarm and Resistance phase.
Before I get into the actual tapering side of things it’s important to mention some things you SHOULD’T DO.
1. Don't continue training as hard as you have been
You won’t be able to recover, and you will perform poorly.
2. Don't cease training altogether
Ceasing your training completely in the weeks leading up to an event has been shown to result in a decrease muscular strength, vo2max, endurance performance, muscle glycogen storage, oxidative enzymes, insulin sensitivity and muscle size. This is known as de-training as should be avoided at all costs. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10966148
3. Don't Play around with your recovery protocols
One of the worst things you can do in sports is change your daily routine before a big event. Here, I’m talking about foam rolling and stretching. If you don’t stretch for extended periods of time or use the foam roller every day than this is the wrong time to start. Doing hours of foam rolling and stretching can literally change the quality of the muscle tissue and the range of motion at the joint. A small amount is fine, but if you go from zero to an hour every day, it’s likely going to harm your performance. Continue to do what you did through training. If you’re someone that takes ice baths regularly, keep that up. If you get massage once a week, get a massage. If you do some sort of yoga, keep going with it. If you’re not someone that gets a massage or does yoga then I’d recommend against it. Just because it’s seen as ‘recovery’ doesn’t mean your body is going to respond to this new stimulus favourably. New stimulus is still new stimulus. Don’t deviate too much from what you’ve been doing.
4. Don't change your diet too much
If you’ve been eating a predominantly a paleo, keto, high carb or (insert diet here...) diet, I don’t believe the last few weeks are a time to play around with that. If you’re in endurance sports you’ve probably heard of carb loading. If you know exactly what you’re doing or you have a nutrition coach with you for this then you may want to look into it, but I’d recommend just sticking to what you’ve been doing. For each gram of carb you consume you hold onto about 3 grams of water. That’s extra weight that you’ve got to cart around for hours during an Ironman. Some of the research points to keeping your diet the same in conjunction with decreasing your training volume. Therefore, you will be spending less calories each day and will naturally lead to an increase in muscle glycogen stores. You’ve likely been improving in training eating what you’re eating, so again, try not to change too much in the weeks leading into a race, you don’t know exactly how your body will respond.
The one tip Alex Hutchison gives in this article - (https://www.runnersworld.com/training/a20790558/advice-to-a-young-athlete/) - is whatever the amount of fruit and veg you’ve been eating - increase it. He places special emphasis on leafy greens and berries. The reason for this is because they’re both extremely high in micro-nutrients, easy on the gut (no GI distress) and they’re low on calories = weight gain likely won’t be an issue.
5.Don't change your supplement regime
Unless you’ve been training and practicing with the use of supplements like caffeine, beet juice, bicarb buffers, beta-alanine, sodium citrate or anything else you’ve heard of – the time to try these for the first time is NOT your big race. Unless you’re accustomed to using them on a regular basis, it’s really not a good idea and it could wreak HAVOC on your gut. It could even cause you to even shit yourself. If you have trained using them and they work for you, all the more power to you! Most athletes use gels or some sort of fuel source so if you haven’t trained appropriately using these fuels then you’re going to have to do your best with what you’ve been doing.
6. Don't drink too much water
There’s a fine line here, obviously you want to be hydrated enough but if you overshoot and drink too much water you can put yourself at risk of hyponatremia. This is a condition common amongst marathon runners and endurance athletes, where they’re so focused on getting hydrated and drinking water that they forget to replace electrolytes (most importantly sodium) from the body. These electrolytes are lost during sweating and are why some sports drinks and tablets may be beneficial. This isn’t exactly my wheelhouse but it’s something to be concerned with.
Here’s an article to have a read through (https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/01/080109195002.htm).
Basically make sure that your pee has a slight tinge of gold or yellow in it. If it comes out looking clear like vodka or water, then it’s likely you’ve had too much and need to drink a sports drink or take an electrolyte / sodium tablet. On the other end, avoid drinking too little water. You can tell when you’re dehydrated by analysing your pee because it starts turning extremely dark gold, even brown.
Alright, lets get into the tapering.
Let’s refresh our memories – what exactly is tapering and why is it important?
Tapering is a technique that an athlete may use to increase performance during an event. It involves decreasing training load to peak for a given competition. The most commonly used taper is a decrease in volume while keeping intensity the same, although duration and frequency can also be varied.
The benefits of tapering are many.
Increased; competition performance, power, speed, neuromuscular function, strength, muscle size, Vo2max, running economy, testosterone, erythrocyte volume, anti-inflammatory immune cells as well as a decrease in things like muscle damage, stress hormone levels and inflammatory cytokines.
There’s also evidence that it can put you in a more positive mood, reduce levels of anger, depression and anxiety as well as increase sleep quality. The benefits above have been seen throughout a number of different sports ranging from weightlifting to triathlon.
Is tapering necessary?
With tapering everyone’s situation is different.
One thing you have to ask yourself before considering tapering is this – “How important is this event to me?”
You’ve got to understand that unless it’s the most important event or the only event you’re going to be doing that year, then a huge taper isn’t exactly necessary. Think about it. If you have 5 races a year and you try doing a 3-4 week taper for each one of those events, then that’s around 4-6 months of significantly reduced volume where you aren’t getting fitter and probably another 2-3 weeks post-event where you’re not training as hard.
That equates to roughly half a years’ worth of time where you aren’t improving your fitness.
So it’s important to ask yourself...
Is this the only event I’m competing in this year?
Is this the most important event all year?
Is this event part of my preparation for a more important event down the line?
Is this event just for fun?
Really think about those questions and your answers to them.
If this event isn’t super important, maybe a 4-5 day taper is fine – you could even use the event as your big training session that week.
If it is extremely important, then maybe you need 10 to 14 days.
If you’re an elite athlete preparing for Kona or the Olympics, you may want to consider really starting to dial it in 3 weeks out. But even professional athletes will have their last really hard session 10 to 14 days out.
Now for the nitty gritty:
Here I’ll breakdown the research and the follow it up later with my recommendations on what you could do.
What does the research say?
As I mentioned earlier the training variables that we can alter during a taper are intensity (speed, pace, heart rate), volume (distance, duration), and frequency (training sessions per day/week).
This study looked at experienced (1 year or more of focused training) endurance athletes
Here’s what they found:
Intensity should be kept the same as it has been in the weeks leading up to the event. Some studies showed a benefit in slightly increasing intensity. Your speed, RPE (perceived exertion) and heart rate should be maintained throughout these last 7-14 days. A lot of athletes will continue to train at race pace while simultaneously dropping the volume off. It’s important to keep your body firing on all cylinders through the last week up until around 3 days before race day.
Volume is an extremely important variable to consider. Volume likely contributes the most to your soreness and general fatigue so it’s important to follow the guidelines below. The following information comes directly from the article above.
“Based on current research, we offer the following general guidelines for experienced aerobic and anaerobic athletes:
For minimal fatigue (i.e., <4 weeks of normal training), the taper should range from 7 to 10 days in duration, with a 50% reduction in training volume.
For moderate fatigue (i.e., >3 months of normal training), the taper should last 10 to 20 days and reduce volume by 60% to 75%.
For extreme fatigue (i.e., after an overreaching training cycle), the taper should last 14 to 28 days and reduce volume by 60% to 90%.”
I assume most people will fit into the 1st or 2nd category. With a few weeks to go from competition you’re probably feeling general soreness and fatigue. That’s okay and it’s time to drop the volume down so you can recover and achieve peak performance.
The research points to experienced athletes maintaining their training frequency. For example, if you train 6 days a week, you should continue training 6 days a week. The intensity of the sessions will be the same, but the volume of the sessions will be dropped depending on fatigue levels, importance of the event and mental state of the athlete.
Type of taper:
The research is not conclusive on the best type of taper, some people responded better to a ‘step taper’ where there is a sharp drop off to your entire training volume. Some benefited more from a 'linear taper' where you reduce the volume of each session by 5% or so, and another was an 'exponential taper' where volume is decreased at “a rate proportional to its current value in a nonlinear fashion.” For example: Day 1 = 12km, Day 2 = 6km, Day 3 = 3km. This paper recommends that the longer the taper, the slower your reduction CAN and SHOULD be. This paper showed that the evidence is conflicting on the type of taper used. They did, however, mention that the reduced volume is probably more important than the type of taper and that lower volume led to the greater power and faster run times regardless of the type of taper. This is good news as it means we only have to be concerned with the volume, frequency and intensity during the taper
Summing things up:
Keeping in line with the research and anecdotal evidence / best practices from elite athletes and coaches online. This is how I would set-up a taper for a half-ironman.
Remember this is general advice only and depends on your current fitness level, experience, recent training preparation, fatigue levels etc.
In order to give you something solid to take away though, I wanted to recommend some actual numbers.
I’d recommend the following.
Taper your training in the last 7-14 days coming into an event. The longer you’ve been preparing for this race the longer the taper. A max of 14 days is recommended. If you haven’t been training for long (<4 weeks) or this race isn’t very important to you than you may need less than 7 days to taper.
A lot of the research and advice from athletes seems to point to having your last hard race-specific effort 14 days out, and your last long distance endurance sessions (ride and run) 7-10 days out.
Intensity, volume and frequency:
Keep the number of training sessions the same as in the weeks leading up to the event but alter the intensity and volume (i.e. 6 sessions a week in training = 6 sessions a week in taper).
Intensity (pace, heart rate, RPE) should be maintained or slightly increased during each session up until around 3 days out. The volume should be decreased around 40-60% over the final 2 weeks. I’d recommend a step taper to do this as it’s super simple. You could drop your volume by 30% each session in week 1 of the taper. Followed by another 30% drop again during week 2. This would mean during week 2 of your taper (7 days out) your training volume should be at 60% of the volume performed 3 weeks out.
If you’re extremely fatigued, or sore or your mood and readiness each day feels quite low then you may want to push it up to 35-40% reductions each week. Alternatively you may feel really good and do 25% week 1, 50% week 2.
To simplify things further; if we look at running, and you were doing a 15km run, 3 weeks out, at a 4 min/km pace. 2 weeks out you could drop that to 10km at 4 min/km pace. Then in the last week drop it to 5km at a 4 min/km pace.
You can afford to go a little more aggressively on the swimming, so if you feel like you need to push the intensity or volume a little bit more, swimming is your best bet.
If you feel you need a complete rest day, do it 2 days before the event and do a light session the day before, perhaps a swim or cycle so there’s no load bearing.
The final week is all about ‘just enough’ – hit just enough intensity and volume to keep the machine firing on all cylinders. You wouldn’t park a race car in the garage the entire week before a race and hope it functions properly on race day. So don’t do the same with your body.
This is summed up nicely here: “The aim here is to maintain neuromuscular pathways, which is basically the brain’s memory system of which muscle fibers it needs to activate in order to perform certain activities, and to perform those activities at certain speeds… This memory in the brain tends to drift after 48-72 hours without stimulation, so you never want to go longer than 48 hours without repeating a single-sport training session.” – Alun Woodward
If in doubt and you’re feeling fatigued, do less.
If you think you’re not doing enough bump it up slightly.
Your mental state is not to be overlooked, so doing what you think is best will probably be best.
But just remember during the last 7 days, there is a significant drop in volume so you may start to get antsy and eager to train harder – that’s good – save that energy for the race.
Try not to change your diet and routine during the taper. You’ve gotten to this stage in your training by eating and preparing like you do. You should maintain that through to race day because your body is accustomed to that.
After looking through a lot of research and reading up on what the elite athletes do, these are the best recommendations I can give at this time. Feel free to swing us a message if you have any questions or concerns.
Good luck in your race!