The process of tapering, or lowering training volume, in the lead-up to competition was developed by swimmers and track athletes looking for every last scrap of performance. The results spoke for themselves.
The standard taper varied. In general, though, sprinters tended to take as long three weeks, while endurance swimmers, for example, were inclined to take as little as one week.
Despite clear evidence that a shorter taper is most beneficial for endurance athletes, many Ironman training plans today include a full three-week taper. Ironman triathletes can blame marathon runners for this perverse development. In the 1970s, intensifying competition at the elite level of marathon racing led to a sort of arms race in training loads. Athletes kept training more and more until overtraining was the norm. It takes about three weeks for the body to recover from overtraining. Thus, the marathon runners of the 1970s had to taper for three weeks before racing just to recover from their excessive training.
For some reason, a marathon and an Ironman were deemed very similar, so the three-week taper was also adopted for Ironman racing. There are two problems with this practice. First, the three-week marathon taper is essentially just recovery time from overtraining, and by following this taper, we are assuming overtraining is the norm in Ironman preparation. More importantly, though, an average marathoner will take four hours to reach the finish line whereas an average Ironman triathlete takes 12 hours—eight hours is a big difference.
Ironman athletes would have been better off looking to ultramarathon runners for an example. Ultrarunners typically perform either a very short taper or none at all, thus falling much more in line with conventional wisdom.
To fully understand the taper and the best way to approach an Ironman, we need to look at how the body adapts to training stimuli and what we need the body to do on race day.
Let’s look at the three main components of fitness—speed, strength and endurance—and how each of these is affected by training.