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Rethinking the Taper Phase

BY Tim Ballintine

Many athletes have strong emotional responses to the word 'taper.' Is it time that we replace the term with something more positive?

When you’re standing on the start line after months and months of preparation, would you rather feel like you’re tapered or peaking?

Taper is defined as diminishing something at one end, in our case, the preparation. Athletes push themselves through arduous blocks of training; building strength in their bodies and belief in themselves, only arrive at the taper, which inherently carries a negative connotation. So much of an athlete’s race day performance lives  ‘between the ears’, and through the final phase of the preparation, we carry with us such a negative term. Geez, way to ruin the party!  

There is no question we need to reduce fatigue leading into an event to ensure peak physiological performance, hence why the original term, taper, fits so perfectly. However, it seems the word ‘taper’ was given to this phase of training without any consideration to the phycological state of the athlete. 

Some athletes yearn for tapering, while others fear it. These reactions are largely emotional, pushing athletes to behave in certain ways, contrary to how they’ve behaved during the previous months of preparation. In the context of TrainingPeaks, you’ve been watching that blue line (CTL) rise and rise, only to watch it fall in the weeks before the race. It’s absolutely maddening!

Those Who Embrace the Taper

Take the athlete that loves the taper. They’ve slogged it out, and they’ve been looking forward to that last session of the prep where everything starts to taper off. They enjoy the extra forty minutes of sleep before work and the quality Netflix couch time at night. 

As coaches, we must note that this ‘yearning for taper’ can be a slippery slope. Erring on the side of caution, i.e. “it’s raining so I’ll skip this one today, I’ve done the work,” or “I’m a bit tight, I’ll go get that massage instead of swim,” can cause training disarray. 

Suddenly, the TrainingPeaks account of a ‘green machine athlete’ turns into a rainbow. They essentially toss out so much hard work, in just a few weeks. If explained correctly, perhaps the athlete that yearns for taper can also yearn for the peak phase. And as a result, they remain a ‘green machine’ with an emotional desire to arrive at the final peak phase summit. 

Those Who Dread the Taper

Take the athlete that fears taper. They’ve slogged it out, and they’ve been dreading the taper for a month. They feel anxious lying in bed for an extra hour in the morning, or during the dead time after dinner. This too can be a steep slippery slope. 

They might, in turn, decide: “I’ll just turn the legs over for forty minutes to flush things out,” or “I feel so unfit, I’ll just throw in a few efforts to stay sharp on today’s run.” That CTL they fought so hard to increase, now it falls away, along with their hopes and dreams. 

Maybe, just maybe, if that final phase of the preparation was called the peaking phase, they would no longer fear it, and they too would remain, ‘green machines’. 

To Taper or To Peak?

Perhaps the taper phase is just so ingrained in the language and dialogue of athletes and coaches it’s not a battle worth fighting. But I question if it’s really best for us to simply remain complacent and let future generations struggle through as we have. If your answer to my first question was the latter, then you know what to do.

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About Tim Ballintine

Tim Ballintine is the founder of Koa Sports and a full-time endurance coach. Koa Sports are the 2022 Asia Pacific IRONMAN TriClub Champions, 2022 IRONMAN Busselton TriClub Champions and Top 10 Club overall 2022 Kona, Hawaii. Tim is a Level 2 TrainingPeaks Coach, accredited with Triathlon Australia, and an eight-time 70.3 and IRONMAN AG champion and course record holder, and three-time Hawaiian IRONMAN with an 8:51 PR.

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