Once an athlete has completed Peak Phase, it’s time to enter Taper Phase. Taper Phase is the time period when athletes continue to complete workouts, but do so much differently than they did in the phases that preceded Taper Phase.
By the time Taper Phase begins (any time from one to three weeks out from a goal event), the time to increase fitness and physical preparedness for the athlete’s goal event has passed. As of the start of Taper Phase, no additional physical gains can be made to prepare for the race.
Read that again: There is NOTHING you can do to increase your physical preparedness for your goal race once you are in this timeline.
Instead, this is a time to shed off fatigue built in the earlier phases of the training plan. Workouts during this phase should be at their same frequency as in the other phases (meaning that if you were working out 5-6 days per week in earlier phases, you should continue to do the same during this time), but the duration and overall intensity is scaled back progressively over the entire duration of Taper Phase.
Now, this doesn’t mean that we don’t include ANY intensity in this phase. Quite the opposite, really. Going into a goal event “stale” can be just as problematic as going into it overtrained, and this staleness can occur when too many rest days are taken or when workouts don’t include variations in efforts. We want to keep reminding the body of its “range of gears” and what it is capable of, but we want to do so in a way that primes us to race our best on race day. We want to go easy when it’s planned for, and go harder when it’s planned for. Not more, and not less.
Remember: A proper training plan has you ready to race EXACTLY on the day of your goal event. Not the day before, and not the day after.
Since Taper Phase is the phase that immediately precedes race day (literally...Taper Phase concludes the day before an athlete’s goal event), this is a time period when athletes tend to want to make sure they are as prepared as possible for their race. At the surface level, this is valid, as I want this, too! However, this desire can (and often does) result in athletes wanting to do more in their workouts (in terms of volume, intensity, or both) in this time period than is appropriate.
Recall what I said earlier: The hay is in the barn. It is not possible to make physical gains that will prepare you for your race once you are in Taper Phase. You cannot “cram” for a race the way you may have tried to study for exams while you were in school. It is possible, however, to risk impairing your ability to race well by doing too much in Taper Phase. Remember: Just because you can do something (i.e. longer or more workouts) doesn't mean you should.
Do you recall how burnt out, tired, and grumpy you (likely) felt in Peak Phase? THIS - Taper Phase - is the opposite of that. You SHOULD feel like you’re ready to go and that you could do more. This is a signal that your body is adapting optimally for a good performance on race day. But again, you need to resist the urge to do more if you want to be able to be successful on race day.
It should be noted, however, that some athletes don’t experience this “chomping at the bit” feeling in Taper Phase. Some athletes actually feel a bit more tired and sluggish. This is also, in my anecdotal experience as a coach, something that can be “normal” for this phase. These feelings/experiences could be for a variety of reasons, but many times, it is because athletes tend to use the extra time they have in Taper Phase (due to the aforementioned reduction in workout volume) to “catch-up” on tasks that they may have let go by the wayside in earlier phases of training. Additionally, many athletes don’t prioritize sleep and recovery during this phase the same way they do in higher-volume phases, and that can (and usually does) manifest as feelings of sluggishness and fatigue.
So what DO we do in Taper Phase?
As mentioned previously, it is a time to continue to do workouts at the same consistency that you have been training. Additionally, it’s a great time to go over your plan for your race (which may include elements like nutrition, effort, etc.).
This is also a very appropriate time to take stock of any/all gear that you will be using in your race. Make sure everything is ready and operating as you want it to be. While we don’t want to change anything drastically (remember: nothing new on race day), this is a good time to make sure that things are in order such as: your bike is tuned, your device batteries are charged, that you have adequate supplies of your race nutrition, and that your running shoes have miles left in them.
Finally (but perhaps most importantly), it’s also a wonderful time to reflect on the journey that brought you to this point. After all, race day is the metaphorical cherry on top of the sundae. It is the reward for all of the hard work, time, sacrifice, and effort you have put forth. This should be a joyful and exciting time for you, when you are eagerly looking forward to the experience of the race and seeing what you can do when you get to race day. This is a great time to express gratitude for your ability to be at this point in your training and knocking on race day’s door.
Taper tantrums - the sensation that you want to be doing more or that you don’t feel ready to race - strike the heartiest of athletes, but you don’t have to let the taper tantrums take firm root in your mind. Focus on what you CAN do during this phase to best prepare yourself for race day and trust that all of the work you put in before this time is in the bank, there to serve you well, and be “withdrawn” come race day for a solid, strong, smart performance. :)
Coach Laura Henry
Laura Henry is a Syracuse, NY-based coach who is a USA Triathlon Level II Long Course and Level II Paratriathlon Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, VFS Certified Bike Fitter, and has successfully completed NASM's Certified Personal Trainer course. Coach Laura is passionate about helping athletes of all ability levels reach their goals and has coached many athletes to success.