A common saying among triathletes is that “the taper before a race is harder than the training itself.” When you’ve achieved a level of fitness where you’re no longer worried about your ability to complete the long runs and rides, high weekly mileage and daunting workouts, the thought of not training and losing fitness during the taper is scarier than any workout a coach can conjure up.
More importantly, the taper portion before an Ironman is also the time when triathletes make the most costly mistakes, whether it be too little exercise, deviating from a normal routine, or getting too worked up. It’s easy to ruin months of hard work during what should be a relatively easy two to three weeks of training.
The biggest mistake a lot of triathletes make in the last two to three weeks leading into the race is over-tapering. This will often lead to a flat, sluggish feeling on race day and increases the chance that you’ll get sick as your metabolism and immune system are thrown out of whack due to the sudden change in activity and decreased demands on the body.
Most athletes don’t feel good immediately following a couple of extra easy days or a rest day. They expect immediate gratification in their step with just a few easy days. Keep in mind that it can take up 10 to 12 days to fully absorb and recover from a long run or hard workout.
Perhaps the most detrimental tapering mistake athletes make is not keeping the workouts specific to the competition in the last two weeks of the training cycle. For example, triathletes often try to do short, speed-oriented workouts to build confidence before the race, make them feel faster, or because the thought of long workouts during the taper phase scares them.
The problem with this approach is two-fold. First, by performing a workout that uses an energy system you haven’t been utilizing in the last four to six weeks, you actually fatigue your muscles more if your body isn’t conditioned to it. It would similar to performing a set of heavy squats when you haven’t lifted weights in 4–6 weeks.
Second, one of the most critical components to race-day success is being able to execute your race plan and run the correct pace, especially at the start of the race. In the last two weeks, you should capitalize on the opportunity to practice race pace. Not only does this ensure you’re working the exact energy systems you need for race day, but it will provide that crucial, last-minute pacing feedback you need to execute the perfect race plan. A coach can help you to develop a targeted and individual tapering strategy.