Over the last 28 years, I have experimented with many race taper suggestions and programs. What I have learned is that there is definitely no 100% guaranteed way to ensure your legs are not flat come race day with the taper.
The normal theories center around significant reduction in mileage and incorporating some shorter sprints or “pick ups” to keep the legs from getting the sluggish feeling from just slow short very easy running or biking. Everyone is different to his or her own approach but the following is a tapering strategy to consider for your racing that I have used year after year. I advise practicing this taper strategy for a less important race just to see if it works for you.
This tapering approach is specific to ultra distance triathlons, running or cycling races (not short races). The key is not to drop the overall volume more than 25-30% than your normal high volume weeks (So a 25 hour training week will drop in the 18 range). Also, the speed or hill workouts will be reduced to very short but harder efforts (ex: hill repeats drop 50-60% in volume but increase intensity 10%). Also, train right up to the day before the event – no day off just to stay fresh and remove the nervous energy. Consider a 30-minute swim, 20-30 minute run and/or 45-minute bike for an ultra distance triathlon.
I have found for ultra distance events the long tape has a detrimental effect early on in a multi day event. My legs feel ok but a bit flat for the first day but then just don’t have the same snap on the following couple days until they get back in the groove. Taking into account long travel, time changes, stress, etc. will have an effect as well in addition to abnormally long taper.
The challenge is with a long taper, the body has the risk of going into a recovery state and that “flat” feeling. For those of you who have done events lasting many days, the middle days you will get into your groove and if your race strategy is dialed in, your legs will be in full gear when it counts most – the last 25% of total time in the event. Your race success is determined by how you perform when it’s the worst, the last 25% of the event.
Normally, my taper is just one week, event for a 10-day event. Weeks of tapering just don’t work for many athletes competing in multi day events. Sleep is the most important but watch dropping your training volume too much the last week. Also, incorporate daily mindfulness into your last week of taper to calm the mind a bit.
Tapering is not an exact science for any athlete, but get into a routine that works based upon your event importance and length.