The taper phase is the last phase of a training plan before your main race. In order to perform at your full ability level, you need to taper properly. Here’s everything you need to know about the taper phase.
First a few definitions (these follow the terminology that Training Peaks uses):
Chronic training load – the amount of stress an athlete has put their body under over the last couple months.
Acute training load – the amount of stress an athlete has put their body under over the last few days.
Form or training stress balance – the balance between chronic training load and acute training load.
Goal: The goal of the taper phase is to maintain your fitness level and increase your form.
In this context, form is a measure of your preparedness to perform at peak levels which is a balance of your chronic training load and acute training load. Chronically, you need to have been putting in a lot of work to increase your fitness level. Recently however, you need to cut back on the tough workouts so that you are fresh. That is exactly what taper is.
What it is/characteristics: The taper phase consists of lower volume as well as less intensity. Lower volume means that the weekly total mileage/duration as well as individual workout mileage/duration decrease. Less intensity means that time spent at faster paces or higher training zones decreases. Note that this does not mean that you need to do your zone 2 or 4 workouts at a lower intensity level, it does mean that you shift to more workouts in lower zones during taper. The taper phase is also sport-specific. That means that the limited training that you are doing needs to be in the type of sport that you are racing (swimming, biking, and running – not basketball).
What to do: Listen to your body. If you have aches and pains from the higher volume and intensity that preceded the taper phase, take some time to heal. Schedule a massage, do extra stretching, wear compression tights under your dress clothes at work. Doing things like that will help to improve your freshness before the race. Trust in the hard work and training that you’ve already done. The taper phase is not the time to squeeze in an extra workout or two or to tack on a few extra miles at the end of your workouts. You’ve already put in the hard work, so back off and let your body recover so that you’re ready to race.
What if I haven’t gotten in all of the training that I was supposed to? Taper is even more important for you! If your training volume is lower than you wanted it and think it should be, you should have a more severe taper (take more time to taper and cut back more on the total duration).