How to master the infamous triathlon taper

Why should I? How do I ? When do I? Here are all of your triathlon taper questions answered.

Once you’ve got used to training countless times a week and shedding sweat and tears while you build up to a big triathlon, it can be very hard to take your foot off the gas and take it easy for a week. Many athletes will think that having a chilled week before your triathlon will lose fitness and hinder your performance but they would be wrong. Giving your body a break and less work to do is exactly what you want to do to give yourself the best chance at success.

Why should I taper?

Tapering gives your body a chance to recover from the strain that you would have been putting it under in all your weeks of training. Taking your training load down lets your muscles heal, meaning that when you hit that start line, they’re ready to go and will be able to carry you further and faster than if you had been training the day before. It also means that your muscles are more prepared to race after you’ve exposed them to a different kind of training.

How do I taper?

Although you may think of tapering as just taking a week off before the triathlon, this isn’t how to do it. The best way to taper is to reduce your overall training load but keep the same training intensity. For example if your normal Monday session is a 30mile bike ride at 20mph, instead do a 20mile ride but still at 20mph so you’re keeping the body working at the same sort of level but not putting the body under stress for as long, giving you more of a chance to recovery efficiently and effectively.

How long should I taper for?

The general rule is: the longer the race, the longer the taper. You want to try and drop your weekly training volume by 20–25% for each week that you are tapering. If you’re doing a sprint triathlon, you won’t need weeks and weeks of tapering when a few days will do. Whereas an Ironman will require nearly a month-long taper.

Is there such thing as tapering too much?

Yes, yes there is. If you take too much time off and take it too easy in the days/weeks leading up to the day then you can end up feeling sluggish and lethargic on the start line. This doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have a bad race but it does mean you’ll have to work harder for the race that you’ve worked for and deserve. If you’re worried about over-tapering, then steer more towards a taper of higher intensity and higher recovery training to ensure that you get lots of race pace practice in.

Why am I getting slower?

Don’t worry if you start showing some slower times for a few sessions. This is perfectly normal while your body adjusts to a new training routine. Tapering can be a mental challenge while you try and change what you’re doing when you feel like you should be doing more. Any training that you do within the last 10 days before your triathlon won’t aid your performance or fitness, while a decent rest will.

It is quite common for someone on their taper to get a bit grumpy because of all this, so try and stay positive and be nice to all the people who have been supporting you in all your training.

Tapering for distance

Like I said earlier; the longer the race, the longer the taper. Triathlons come in various different distances and you can’t taper the same way for each of them. Here is how long you should be tapering for each specific triathlon.

  • Sprint — Wind it down with 4–7 days to go.
  • Olympic— Wind it down with 10 days to go.
  • Half-Ironman — Wind it down with 2 weeks to go.
  • Ironman — Wind it down with 3 weeks to go.
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Back in 2016, Steph swapped her skis for the bicycle and hasn't looked back since. She then joined a triathlon club in Edinburgh, and only a couple of years later came 21st in 2019 Ironman 70.3 World Champs. Since then, she's taken on a number of ultra running and cycling challenges, most notably the infamous 'everesting' cycling challenge. Steph is currently sponsored by Le Col, 2XU, and SunGod.

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