By design, training will gradually fatigue and break down the body. But approximately 1-3 weeks before a race (depending on the distance), athletes will “taper” down the volume of training. This allows your body to fully recover, setting you up for the best success possible on race day. So, just build up training, then rest before your race, and the magic will happen, right? Well, in the famous words of Lee Corso, not so fast! The taper is definitely not one-size-fits-all. Here are three common scenarios that will require a more creative tapering process.
As much as we want to avoid injuries, they do occur, especially as athletes continue to push themselves to reach ever more ambitious goals. To understand how a training plan might need to shift due to injury, imagine a triathlete preparing to race a 70.3. Everything seems to be lining up perfectly when, 8 weeks before the race, she suffers an injury that stops her from running. She can still strength train, swim and bike, which she continues to do while taking time off from running.
Four weeks later, the athlete is 100% healthy and cleared to run—great! But now we are only four weeks from race day. Are we going to stick to the original plan of a two-week taper? For strength, swim and bike, yes: The gradual two-week taper will continue as planned. But for the run, she’ll want to take a different approach, something of a reverse taper.
The athlete above neither needs nor wants a two-week run taper; she’s already rested her run legs for four weeks. It’s now time to reintroduce the stress of running so that her body can properly adapt to the stress being placed on it. Even in the final two weeks before the race, while tapering for strength, swim and bike, her run workouts will continue to build. This build will continue until just a few days before race day, when she’ll take an abbreviated run taper.
Illness, while similar to injury, can present an entirely different package. With illness, all workouts can be affected. To illustrate this situation, let’s say, six weeks out from race day, an athlete comes down with a serious URI (upper respiratory infection) and it takes two weeks for him to fully recover. During this two weeks, he has to put all workouts on the shelf. Like the injury example above, it’s time to get creative, pivot, adjust the training plan and get ready for race day.
Similarly to the triathlete and her run, the weeks leading into the race will now become a build/rebuild of the strength, swim, bike and run. Furthermore, the planned two-week taper will become a much shorter 4-7 day taper. Again, this athlete was already out of commission for two weeks. From a mental, physical and physiological perspective, this athlete is pumped up and thrilled to be healthy again. They are ready to train (not taper and rest), and the shorter taper will set them up for race day success.
Let’s say an athlete is six weeks out from race day and has to head out on an unexpected business trip for two weeks. She is going to be slammed with 12-14 hour work days for the entire trip. Like in the examples above, her original plan was a gradual two-week taper; what should she do? Well, she can try to keep her training volume high during this trip. But by adding in the stress of travel and work, she is definitely going to risk possible overtraining, reduced sleep, etc., which will seriously compromise her race day performance. Time to get really creative.
Since this athlete’s focus for the next two weeks is all business, all the time, she could simply focus on getting adequate sleep each night to stay on task. She could also pepper in a few short workouts over the trip—a run around the conference center, or some strength training in the hotel gym can go a long way. Upon her return, the athlete will be rested, healthy and ready to make the most of the final four weeks leading into race day. Just like in the illness example, her training build/rebuild will lead into a shortened 4-7 day taper—then it’s game on!
In summary, athletes and coaches need to understand that a by-the-book taper will not always produce the best results. Instead, we need to be flexible and creative in order to set ourselves (or our athletes) up for the ultimate success.