Episode 82 - How to Properly Taper for a Race with Pro Triathlete and Coach Elizabeth James

How to Properly Taper for a Race with Pro Triathlete and Coach Elizabeth James

Joining me for this episode is Pro Triathlete and TriDot Coach Elizabeth James. She generously shares her knowledge and experience from both the athlete and coaching perspectives.

We discussed:

  • What is an exercise taper?
  • Why do you need to taper? Why is it so important for exercise performance?
  • What are some of the common mistakes you see triathletes make when it comes to tapering?
  • Should you taper for all of your races or just one key A race?
  • Is there a difference in taper based on training experience? Would a beginner/new to the sport taper differently to someone with many years of experience? Or is it the same?
  • What is reverse tapering? Is it something age-group triathletes should try?


Connect with Elizabeth on Instagram

If you want to nerd out on the literature, here is a nice little paper: Tapering for Competition: a review (2012)

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Episode Transcription

Episode 82: How to Properly Taper for a Race with Pro Triathlete and Coach Elizabeth James

Taryn Richardson  00:00

Joining me today is pro triathlete and TriDot coach Elizabeth James or EJ. She quickly rose from a complete beginner triathlete in 2011 to a top age grouper, and then turned professional triathlete in 2019. Her favorite distance is definitely the full distance triathlon these days with her big goal to win a 70.3 or full distance event. And with a PB of 9 hours, 40 minutes for a full distance, she's definitely hooking out there on course. And today she's sharing her experiences from the coaching and the athlete's perspective on how to properly taper for a race

Taryn Richardson  00:44

Welcome to the Triathlon Nutrition Academy podcast. The show designed to serve you up evidence-based sports nutrition advice from the experts. Hi, I'm your host Taryn, Accredited Practicing Dietitian, Advanced Sports Dietitian and founder of Dietitian Approved. Listen as I break down the latest evidence to give you practical, easy-to-digest strategies to train hard, recover faster and perform at your best. You have so much potential, and I want to help you unlock that with the power of nutrition. Let's get into it.

Taryn Richardson  01:21

Hi Elizabeth, and welcome to the TNA podcast.

Elizabeth James  01:24

Well, hello. I'm so excited to be here.

Taryn Richardson  01:27

Thank you for joining me to talk all things tapering for a race. I think it's going to be a really interesting chat to get your perspective as an elite athlete, but also as an age group coach. And I really wanted to pick your brain because I hear a lot of mixed messages when it comes to tapering for a race. You put in all this effort into training and not tapering properly can really affect how you perform and feel on race day. So let's kick things off before we dive too deep into it. But what actually is an exercise taper?

Elizabeth James  01:56

Yeah, I mean, like you said, we put in all of this time and all of this energy into our training and so we really want to maximise that on race day. And the taper is what allows us to do that. The taper is this transition from training with the intent of fitness or performance gains to now training with the intent of preparing to race. So the taper itself is a gradual reduction in the training load. And that gradual reduction provides for the physiological adaptation or the rest and recovery that allows us to be ready for race day. I mean, tapering allows the body to really replenish and just regulate itself. Because during training, athletes put just so much stress on the body. And that stress is going to regularly deplete the glycogen stores, it forces that muscle development, and then it can disrupt hormone levels. And so allowing that optimal recovery during this tapered period ensures that athletes can enter a race as close to 100% as they can be, which will increase the likelihood that they'll have that peak performance on race day.

Taryn Richardson  03:09

Yeah, so it kind of leads nicely into like, why you actually need to taper? And then why is that so important for performance that we actually do that? We stop and rest and from a nutrition perspective, reload our glycogen. Why is it so important for us to have a good race day?

Elizabeth James  03:24

I'm just super pumped that we're talking about this and having this chat today because if it were just you know, a matter of reducing workout volumes and not training as hard, it would just be so simple. But kind of getting to that point of peak performance is much as an art as it is a science. And so as we mentioned, you know, there are those physiological adaptations that are occurring internally. But then there's also this mental component to race readiness as well. And I truly believe that one part of race readiness is kind of the athletes level of confidence in their taper. And that really begins with an understanding of what they're doing in the final weeks before the race. And really, the taper just allows for all of those things that we do in training that break down our body, to now recover and restore so that we're ready to go when we get to the start line.

Taryn Richardson  04:20

So tapering is this progressive decrease in training load. And we'll get into the details of how to do that and what that means. But what are some of the common mistakes that you see triathletes making when it comes to tapering?

Elizabeth James  04:31

There are quite a few. I think I'm going to go and just kind of give you my top three training mistakes that I've seen in the past few years when it comes to the taper.

Taryn Richardson  04:40

There's too many.

Elizabeth James  04:41

There are and I mean, there's also some major like nutrition and hydration no-no's, but I think that would take us down a whole nother topic of the taper nutrition. So we'll stick with our top three training mistakes. So I'd say the first common mistake that I see is panic training. And you know, just this last minute effort of like, oh my gosh, I don't know, if I'm ready. Let me do like one more hard workout to get my confidence up Or I think I can squeeze in like one more super long run, because that'll just make sure that I'm good to go. And I mean that last minute training does a lot more harm than it does good. And I think part of this comes from a common misunderstanding and athletes get so worried that oh, my gosh, I'm gonna lose fitness during the taper, like, I've been training so hard. And if you tell me not to train, where's that fitness going to go? It's something that if we educate athletes a little better, and they have a better understanding that the training sessions that they're putting in, are not going to reap fitness gains later that day, or even the next day. Those adaptations in the body actually take weeks to occur. And so putting in those hard training sessions, or those really long training sessions in the days leading up to the race, will actually have negative physiological impacts than beneficial ones. So I'd say common mistake one is panic training, thinking, oh, my gosh, I'm not ready yet. Let me do a little bit more and then I'll be better.

Taryn Richardson  06:10

Quick! Cram!

Elizabeth James  06:11

Yeah, yeah, like cramming for the test. I think common mistake number two, and this is getting better. I haven't seen this as much but it's still out there is being a couch potato in, like, the two weeks before the race. And this is definitely the flipside of someone panic training - is the athlete that just does nothing during their taper. And you know, they say, well, I want to be rested. And so they're going to avoid doing basically any physical activity under the name of rest and recovery. So they have a misunderstanding that they think sitting on a couch two weeks prior to their event, they're going to be very well rested come race day.

Elizabeth James  06:54

And this could be also an insecurity for not understanding what plan they have, you know, they don't want to do too much - they're afraid of that. And so they would rather do nothing, then think, oh, my goodness, I'm going to do too much and I'm going to go into the race feeling really tired. One of the things that, when I'm working with an athlete, we try to keep their schedule very similar during the taper. So if they're training, you know, six or seven days a week headed into the race, we're going to maintain a similar schedule of doing some sort of activity, six or seven days of that taper week. The biggest thing that we're going to see is that reduction in volume. So it's definitely not the same amount of hours. It's definitely not the same amount of intensity, but it is keeping them in a routine of movement so they're not just going to be sedentary and stiffen up, become that couch potato for those two weeks leading into the race either.

Taryn Richardson  07:52

Two opposite ends of the spectrum there - doing too much and then absolutely doing nothing. So what's the third mistake that you see all the time?

Elizabeth James  07:59

Yeah, so common mistake number three is right in the middle there. So they aren't panic training, they're not sitting on the couch, they're doing something but they have included no intensity in those days leading into the race. And athletes will often think too, okay, you know, I'm going to rest. I'm going to take things really, really easy. And the easier that I go in these sessions leading into the day, the more that I'm going to feel rested when I get to the start line. I've often had this question, especially from some of the newer athletes that I've worked with, and they look at the schedule that I have for them for their race week. And they're like, hang on, I thought it was tapering? Like, what do you mean? Why do we have some tempo work in here? Why don't we have a little bit of, like, Zone Four? I thought that this was recovery week. How do you want me to do this and then go race? I'm going to be tired. And they always come back later and they're like, okay, yeah, that was helpful, or, oh, I didn't really feel tired from that workout, you know, it's just a tiny little bit of intensity. It's getting them primed, it's getting them ready to go.

Elizabeth James  09:02

And at first, it does seem a little counterintuitive. But keeping that intensity in there is really going to help to maintain that muscular elasticity. And then we're keeping the muscles just ready to race. So in addition, it also maintains that neuromuscular activation, so those neural pathways that we've been creating, throughout training, we want to maintain those during that taper week as well. So a little bit of intensity is going to be important from, kind of, that physiological standpoint. And then it's going to continue to promote recovery. I mean, when an athlete trains, their body is making those adaptations to really repair itself. So just that little bit of stimulus, that little bit of intensity is going to kind of signal to the body, hey, we're still in this restorative time. We want to repair things. We want to keep things sharp, ready to go for race day. So we see this overall reduction in volume. But just that little bit of intensity while bringing down the load is just going to keep them sharp and ready for that task at hand when they get to the start line.

Taryn Richardson  10:09

Oh, some great little tips and nuggets in there. I've seen all of those things happen in my experience doing triathlon and none of that ends well on race day. So we're going to dive into some of those practicalities and how to actually implement that. But before we do that, I wanted to get your thoughts on what sort of races that you want to taper for. So if you've got a really full calendar - maybe you've got a couple of, like, shorter races, maybe you've got a couple of, like, 70.3s and then maybe one Ironman. But you've got a full racing calendar, are we looking at implementing a taper for every single one of those races? Or is it just for one key race in your season?

Elizabeth James  10:48

This is a great question because triathletes are pretty well known for putting a lot of events on their schedule. It's very rare that they'll just have a race or two and we can designate those as the A races. They're like, all in and they're like, oh, I want to do this, and this, then I'm going to do this run, and this triathlon.

Taryn Richardson  11:06

Yeah, FOMO is real. FOMO!

Elizabeth James  11:08

Exactly. Got to put it all in there. So this is a great question. And it really is going to depend on the athlete and what their calendar is. So when I'm working with an athlete, and we're planning out their season, I always have them go through and identify, okay, what are my A races? You know, what are the B priority events? And what are those kind of C priority races on the calendar, where I'm going to do it, it might be with some buddies or with the family, and I'm not very concerned about my performance level at that - I really just want to make sure that I'm ready for these key A races. And we kind of look at how many times that can occur throughout the year based on when they are, how close together they are to one another, and what else they have going on.

Elizabeth James  11:58

We emphatically know that tapering for a race is going to improve the race performance. And that's something that has been documented in a number of studies. I mean, that part is clear. The athlete that tapers is going to perform better. So the inverse of that is I mean, if you don't taper you're not going to perform as well. And that's okay, if that's not your primary event for you know, the season. And you're having that understanding that okay, this is not going to be my topnotch race. So really it comes down to what are the things that are most important.

Elizabeth James  12:35

When it's a C race, I really consider that with my athletes as a training opportunity. And so athletes may reduce their volume one to three days ahead of a C priority. And some might just train through the whole thing and kind of use that as their training session. And so for a C race, it's almost like a non existent taper. B priority races, when I work with an athlete will have a structured taper, but it may not be as long as other events. We want them to feel rested as they get to the start line. But they may not have had time to really have a full restoration of some of those things that we talked about earlier. But they still may have some muscle breakdown. They still may not have completely topped off the glycogen stores. They may not be fully recovered from the training that they've been doing. But they shouldn't feel just exhausted getting to the starting line either. And then, and I'm sure this is what we'll zero in on a lot more for those key races, absolutely, like we are going to have a well thought out taper that allows the athlete to be at their peak on race day. So should you taper for all of them? I'd say no. Don't miss out on that training time for lower priority events. And really just key in on those A priority ones where you do want to be at your top performance.

Taryn Richardson  13:56

Yeah, great advice. I often hear triathletes whinging that they had no taper for a race and how much it hurts and end up having not great performances or not what they expect. But flipping a switch and thinking about it differently as a training opportunity and practice is a perfect way to go into that rather than whinging that you didn't get to taper. Because there's method to the madness, right? You've got a periodise training program for a reason. The whole thing pivots around whatever your A race is. So nice little advice there around when to taper for what particular races. Is there a difference then for taper based on training experience? So would it beginner - somebody that's fresh and new to the sport of triathlon - taper differently to somebody that has many years of experience racing - like somebody that's been training and racing for 10 years? Or would it be the same?

Elizabeth James  14:47

This is like that all encompassing answer of, "It depends."

Taryn Richardson  14:52

I love that. I use that all the time. "It depends", always.

Elizabeth James  14:55

Like, the standard answer.

Taryn Richardson  14:56


Elizabeth James  14:57

But it's so true because this is so individualised - athlete by athlete. Okay, for an example here. Like a young elite level sprint distance athlete, they're going to perform largely the same, whether they've tapered for a couple days or tapered for a week. It's a very short race, they're young, they're fit, they're going to bounce back from their training relatively quickly. You're not going to see like a huge Delta, in their performance if their training taper is just a little bit different for a B race, or, you know, a C race. Now, flip that on the other side, and let's go with a long course, Ironman athlete - maybe this athlete is older, not as fit. We're gonna see a much larger Delta in their performance, if they just trained into an Ironman, did no taper at all, then if they had a good two to three week taper. So there would be a much bigger difference in their performance with when they're going in.

Elizabeth James  15:56

And then you've got the broad spectrum of everybody else in between those two. And that's just one example of how the taper would vary between two athletes based on current age, their sport history, their body composition. So yeah, the individual, their sport age, their recovery rate, maybe even their injury predisposition - all of those things need to be considered into the length of the taper. And then - I get excited talking about this - the taper should be discipline independent. You're not going to necessarily taper for each discipline at the same time. And I think that this is something that is misunderstood, and therefore neglected, as well.

Elizabeth James  16:38

People just go in and they think, okay, you know, I've got a three week taper or I've got a two week taper. And they just think about it in terms of an interval of weeks. But that kind of goes back to a very vague understanding of just cutting back the workouts. And the disciplines with swim, bike and run have a different impact on the body. And the recovery demands from those different activities vary greatly as well. So the recovery demands from a swim session are different than the recovery demands of a run session. So we don't necessarily need to taper the swim and the run at the same rate. And then also, I mean, the individual athlete is different. And you know how well they're able to absorb that training. So I always like to think about starting the taper for an athlete with the discipline that requires the longest recovery. And typically, that's going to be the run, because the run creates the most trauma to the body. It has the largest recovery demand. So we'll start the taper for the run much earlier than we would for the swim. Athletes that are able to recover a little bit quicker than others, maybe we'll start the taper for the run just two weeks out instead of three weeks out. And so there is going to be that discipline independence, but also an athlete by athlete variability as well.

Elizabeth James  18:03

There is a cost benefit relationship, when you're looking at the season and you're looking at an athlete that's tapering. We really have to consider and work with them and think, is it more beneficial for us to begin the taper now in this discipline? Or is it more beneficial for you to get in a few more sessions, and you know, those last few sessions, they may not have a tremendous effect on your overall result, or maybe even for that particular race. But if we're gearing up for a B race, and your A race is still down the road, maybe we don't want to start that taper as early because the training that you're doing still a week and a half out from your B race is going to be of benefit for your A race a little bit further out.

Elizabeth James  18:51

So yeah, there are so many different variables. And that's why the taper is not a cookie cutter one size fits all - very individualised. And I found that most athletes, I mean, if we're trying to wrap this up and give at least a little bit of a generalisation, most athletes do well when they're feeling fresh. And so I really see a lot of progress or some really good race performances, when athletes have rested a good seven to nine days into that key event. So that would be very low volume for the week to week and a half before with just lightly touching on a little bit of that intensity, and then an overall volume reduction two to three weeks out with that greater reduction on race week. And I find that for most athletes that works well, there are a few other methodologies as well. But that seems to be the typical and most beneficial for a lot of the triathletes out there.

Taryn Richardson  19:49

And I assume for a lot of people it's practicing different methods and seeing what actually feels good for them, too. Like there's particular types of tapers or D loads that might make you feel sluggish or tired or not feeling like you're ready to race. And then others, like you do a different kind of methodology and that makes them feel sharp and fresh. So you really have to take the athlete in front of you, whether it is nutrition or training or tapering or whatever. Like we don't know what's going on with you in a podcast type scenario. We want to know much more detail about you and how it makes you feel. And then I guess practising it would be something to muck around with, too, I assume.

Taryn Richardson  20:25

The other thing I hear about tapering is this thing called reverse tapering. I'm not sure if you've ever heard of it before. But working for Triathlon Australia, some of the elite Olympic distance triathletes did more of a reverse taper strategy, because that's what felt better for them. Like they didn't like doing the traditional taper. They would do more of a reverse taper to feel more sharper and fresh on race day. Can you give us some insight into what that actually is? And is that a strategy that an age group triathlete should maybe look at implementing or dabbling with to see if that feels right for them?

Elizabeth James  21:02

This is fun, because this is a very different methodology than kind of what we've been talking about before. And so in a reverse taper, the athlete is going to rest and kind of have that huge reduction in volume, that major reduction in volume, like 7 to 14 days prior to the event. So not necessarily the week of, but either another week ahead of that, or even another two weeks ahead of that. And then after that designated rest, their training builds back up. And we're really sharpening everything in the 3 to 5 days prior to the race.

Elizabeth James  21:39

So okay, who might benefit from something like that? I mean, we know that tapering is going to allow us to be fresh. So why would we want to do that earlier and then train up to it? As you mentioned, some people just feel flat. They say, I just feel sluggish on race day. And while it's typical to feel a little sluggish as the taper begins, we don't want that once the gun goes off. And so yeah, if you're feeling super sluggish when the gun goes off, something wasn't right. And we need an adjustment in the taper. Someone else who might benefit from a reverse taper is someone that always gets sick on race week. And this is actually one of the reasons why I first heard about this, and I am the typical athlete that come race week, I almost always get a cold. So yeah, if you're always getting sick on race week, or you found that you've had to miss a number of events because you've been sick, then this might be something that we want to take a look at. And then there are those that just really struggle with the mental challenge of the race week reduction in volume. So a couple things that we need to touch back on.

Elizabeth James  22:42

And then some of those, like, diesel athletes, you know, they rely on the cardiovascular fitness, and they can perform aerobicly, at a very high percentage of their lactate threshold. And so this is something too that, you know, it's not been scientifically documented, but there may be something in terms of those with slow twitch muscle fibres benefiting a little more from something like this than someone with fast twitch muscle fibres where you know, they really need that quick response to be rested. And so it's a very interesting thing that I think we're still continuing to research.

Elizabeth James  23:18

But let's go back a little bit and talk about the athletes that are always sick, or the ones that just really struggle mentally with that. So there are several reasons why athletes are prone to colds in the week or the week leading up to a race. You know, the lack of sleep really reduces the body's defence mechanism. So if you've been an athlete that is super anxious about the race, and they're really stressed out about it, coming off of this large training block that has largely stressed the body, and now they're not sleeping well, the body is just at this point where it is vulnerable. And they may be more susceptible to getting a cold. And there are things that athletes can do to combat that. But it's not uncommon for athletes to get sick leading into a race as they come off of that big training volume. And so if you're an athlete that's always getting sick, maybe we do want to look at reducing things earlier and building back up.

Elizabeth James  24:18

Additionally, I think a lot of people are familiar with those little aches and pains. Sometimes we call them the taper crazies or the phantom pains of taper week that all of a sudden come up. And it's not necessarily new things, but it's just that our body has masked these little niggles during training. And so during the taper period and during this recovery time, the body is very focused on tissue repair at the cellular level. And so this healing process creates more tissue and sometimes that creation of tissue can cause some twitches or some aches and some pains. And so, you know those little taper pains, it's not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes it's really just the body's way of saying, hey, we are restoring things, we are healing, we're getting you ready. But some athletes have a very hard time with the mental challenge of just feeling all of those things. And they really start to question, "Oh, my goodness, am I going to be ready for this?" And so that might be, again, where if somebody is just super concerned about what they're feeling, and then they can't sleep, and then they're getting sick because of it, they may want to elicit those practices of that reverse taper.

Elizabeth James  25:33

In terms of an age grouper doing it, I'd say likely not. I think there are other ways that athletes can work with their coaches to help make sure that they're staying healthy during race week. I think a little education about some of those taper pains, and the little niggles can help reassure them as well. I would say that for athletes that want to do a reverse taper, they should have a very specific reason for doing it. And then they should really do it under the guidance of a coach. But otherwise, I'd say, you know, stick to the more traditional approach of the taper. If you're finding that that hasn't worked, that you're missing a lot of races due to illness, or there is another reason why, we would want to look into it. There's continued research on it. Maybe we'll learn a little more, maybe in a couple of years we'll see more people employing a reverse taper. But for now, I have found the most beneficial thing for athletes to be a more traditional approach.

Taryn Richardson  26:30

Okay, that is so awesome. So we have a good understanding about what tapering is, why we need to do it for your key race, and how do we actually implement that properly into our programming? What does that look like in practice? And perhaps I thought we could split it into each of our distances. So if your key race, your A race, was like a sprint distance event or the standard distance. So we'll go through each of those if that's okay, and just talk about how to do it. How long are we tapering for? What does it look like when we're decreasing our training volume? How frequently are we training? What's the intensity look like? All of those sorts of things so that people can get a really practical understanding of what that might actually look like. So they can start to look at their own taper, and even maybe ask their coach or get some help with how to taper properly. So let's start with sprint first - sprint distance events. How do you taper properly for something like that?

Elizabeth James  27:21

Well, I'm glad that we're breaking it down because yes, the length of the taper and some of the considerations, they are going to vary distance by distance. So if we're doing a sprint race here, we'll start the taper about 7 to 10 days, so a week/ week and a half out. And as a general rule, we're going to cut our training volume down by, like 50%, across all three of the sports. And then as we've mentioned earlier, we don't want to skip that speed work for the sake of resting. So on the contrary, we really do want to pepper in some good race pace efforts to remind the body of what it needs to do on race day, especially because at a sprint race, I mean, we are going threshold for the duration of the event from start to finish. We need that quick speed, we need that springy feeling. So we don't want to neglect that going into race day either.

Elizabeth James  28:15

So I'd say in those 7 to 10 days as we're taping, we're basically going to half the volume and just make sure that we keep a little bit of intensity. So a good example, I mean, if you're going for a race week run. Let's say we have, you know, a 20 minute run and these race week workouts, they can be 20-30 minutes. We don't need to go out there for an hour. So 20 minute run, and maybe in the middle of that we're doing three minute builds twice, you know where they'll last 30 seconds or, you know, a good hard threshold effort. And then that's it. Nice and easy to the finish. We're good. We've got a little bit of volume, we sprinkled in a little bit of intensity, and we should be feeling fresh and fiery still for race day.

Taryn Richardson  29:00

Sounds good. So 7 to 10 days, 50% reduction in volume. Are we still training every day if our usual program is training every day? Or do we drop a session here or there?

Elizabeth James  29:11

For the most part, I like to keep the schedule consistent. There might be like one day when an athlete does take a full rest day. And a lot of that is personal preference or dictated by travel. And so if an athlete has a long travel day, one of the things that I like to have them do is you know, a good walk after the travel or making sure that they're walking around during the travel day itself. But we may not have a specific training that day, depending on the location and the duration of travel that they have. But yeah, keeping a good familiar schedule would be recommended.

Taryn Richardson  29:46

And is there any changes to what you would do the day before your race? I know a lot of athletes completely rest. Other athletes might go for a really social group coffee ride. I've seen other athletes and this is something I've played with myself is doing like a quick little 10 minute triathlon - 10 minute swim, 10 minute bike, 10 minute run just to practice the transitions and things like that. Is there anything particular or strategic that we could do or should do the day before, if we're talking about tapering into a race?

Elizabeth James  30:15

I think you've nailed it with your little mini triathlon there with 10 minutes there, 10 minutes there, 10 minutes there. I mean, that's what I would consider kind of one of the best preparations the day before, especially if the race venue is allowing athletes to get like in the water or near the transition site, and kind of run through all of those things. And so if athletes can get in, do a 10 minute swim, get the feel for what the water temperature is going to be, if they're going to wear a wetsuit, if they're going to wear a swim skin. All of those things are important to have as a consideration for that taper week. Part of the taper week and that mental preparation is also testing your gear. And so, you know, if you've been traveling to a race, let's make sure that there isn't a big hole in the wetsuit. The day before, let's hop on the bike, let's make sure everything's shifting properly, the brakes aren't rubbing. And yeah, let's make sure that you remembered your run shoes and you've got, you know, the transition all put together. Just a little bit of a shakeout of each discipline is ideal the day before. I would certainly recommend that.

Taryn Richardson  31:17

Okay, so that's some nice little strategy for a sprint distance event. What about our standard distance or our Olympic distance triathlon?

Elizabeth James  31:25

Yeah, so for an Olympic, this is where I see probably the most variation in terms of the taper. And a lot of this has to do with the experience of the athlete, and kind of their fitness level. For some newer athletes, an Olympic distance is a rather long distance. And so they might need a little bit more of a taper. We might be looking at a full two/two and a half weeks to allow them to be rested up, ready to go. I know for the first Olympic distance race that I ever did, I was thinking like this is as long as I will ever go. This seems like Ironman marathon stuff to me. It was intimidating. It was super long. And it was also my main focus at the time. It's something where, I did,  I took, I mean, a full two and a half week taper.

Elizabeth James  32:15

And that's where I use more of a traditional approach in that about two weeks out, I had about a 50% reduction in volume. And then going into race week, I had about a 70% reduction in my overall volume. Whereas an elite athlete that is typically racing Olympics, they might not need as much of a taper there. It also might depend on how often they're racing. So they might just do a week taper. They might not need the full two weeks. But yeah, this is where we're still just applying those same general principles of that gradual reduction in volume with a little bit of intensity headed into race week.

Taryn Richardson  32:54

And starting to see some differences maybe in whether this is like your race, and it's the first Olympic distance race that you've ever done. Your taper is going to look a little bit different by the sounds to somebody that is maybe like yourself, that is an Ironman distance athlete, full distance, and you know, Olympic distance is like 'do it in your sleep' these days.

Elizabeth James  33:13

It's 'do it in my sleep' in terms of distance, but I tell you what, I would not want to race an Olympic distance, because oh, that is a high level intensity for a long, long time. So kudos to everybody if that is your favorite distance. I'll be honest, that is my least favorite distance now because it has a high level of hurt for a long period of time.

Taryn Richardson  33:34

Yeah, so interesting. So interesting. I love that insight - like you've come all through the journey, which is really interesting to see. So the next distance, stepping up a little bit longer now into a bit more of your sweet spot - the 70.3 or half distance events, what does your taper look like at this level?

Elizabeth James  33:54

Yeah. So for a 70.3 event, I see this as very similar to an Olympic distance with kind of the percent reduction for someone that would have like their first Olympic race and their first 70.3. And then where we probably reduce kind of by 50% two weeks out, and then maybe down to like 60% or so in that final week going into the race. For me, I have my athletes do kind of their last hard run about 10 days out from the race. And then in the week leading up to it still doing two runs or so that week that includes some pace work, but really allowing that last hard session to be a good week and a half out from the race day itself.

Elizabeth James  34:40

And then in terms of the riding, two weeks before their event would be you know, still a very good, long ride, typically full distance maybe even just a little bit longer. And then we're starting to cut back where the weekend before they're probably doing about 50% of what that long ride was going to be going into the race. And then swimming. This is where ...swimming doesn't place a great amount of stress like cycling and running does. And so we don't really see a large reduction in the volume of the overall swim until race week itself. And then even early in the race week, we can still get in like a good hour swim. And once we travel to the event site, then it might just be a little bit of a shakeout, going and checking out the venue, being able to get in the water test the temperature there if we're able to. So yeah, probably, you know, a typical taper for a 70.3 race would be about a two week taper, where your last kind of long bike ride is two weeks out, and then we start to bring things down from there.

Taryn Richardson  35:48

So what do we do for our full distance event? It's somebody's A race, and they're going for it - 140.6 full distance racing, what does that taper look like here?

Elizabeth James  35:57

All right, oh, my favorite, the taper is so important. And especially as we get into those longer distance races. I mean, we've already kind of seen that, you know, as we've gone from Sprint to Olympic, Olympic to the 70.3 and now talking about the full, kind of the longer the event, the longer the taper. And I find that the full distance event mirrors a lot of the 70.3 taper in that this is going to be about a 2 to 3 week reduction in volume. This is where especially we see that it varies a lot by discipline, and a lot by experience level. So for someone that has a lot of cycling experience, they may still be doing a pretty good, long ride 10 days out - even seven days out from their race. Whereas someone that might be a little bit new to the distance, we would keep that at two weeks out. But two to three weeks out, we're starting to reduce the volume on the bike, we're starting to reduce the volume on the run. We can still keep a pretty good volume on the swim, as we've mentioned - there isn't as much training stress from the swim. And so you're not going to have that same level of fatigue, you're not going to need the same recovery adaptations from the swim that you would from a harder bike or a harder run. But we're going to just gradually reduce those things down.

Elizabeth James  37:19

And then very similar to the other race weeks, the full distance doesn't have a lot of volume during race week itself. And so where we go back to some of those common mistakes, and those misconceptions, and maybe even a little bit of that panic training. But for somebody that's been training 15 to 20 to 25 hours a week going into a full distance race, and then all of a sudden you tell them, hey, let's go for a 25 minute run today. And they they're like, and what else? And then what after that? And you're like, no, no, no, that's it. And they're like, but what else am I supposed to do with like the other two to three hours that I usually train on my run days?

Taryn Richardson  38:00

Just chill out. Don't be weird. Just be normal.

Elizabeth James  38:03

But the race week sessions are very short. We have that major reduction in volume. And again, just sprinkling in a little bit of intensity there, just like we would find for a sprint race, a 20 minute run with some race building efforts. The pacing might be a little bit different. You might not need to go to an all out sprint as you're preparing for your Ironman race, although we've seen that more and more at the finish line these last couple of years. So maybe we do need to be practicing that a little bit more throughout, but not necessarily race week. You can build into some of the paces that you are planning to hit on race day. And that's where you know, early in the week of a full, I'll do some race day builds. So I'll go out for an hour bike ride and within there, I'll do three or four builds where I start the intensity nice and easy, get up to what my Ironman wattage is going to be. And I'll hold that for a couple of minutes, and just a few minutes, and then back, back down. And then do that a couple times. Same thing for the run. I'll go out for a run, 20 to 30 minutes, you know, a couple of minutes in there. I'll slowly build in the intensity. Hold it for a minute or so at what I'm hoping to run the Ironman marathon in and then bring it back down. And that's all you need.

Taryn Richardson  39:20

Awesome. So it sounds like the full distance is yes, similar to 70.3 distance racing, maybe a little bit longer, still that same reduction in training volume. Are we dropping more sessions in race week here for this full distance event? Or does it still look the same, like it's still that same sort of frequency that somebody's used to, it's just the sessions are much shorter and that intensity is not anywhere near as high as it is when you're peaking?

Elizabeth James  39:46

I find that for the full distance events, there's a lot more travel involved. And so it seems very typical for athletes to have a complete day off sometime in those final 7 to 10 days leading into the race. And a lot of that might be due to just needing to wrap up work, packing, oh my gosh, that's a workout in itself. So sometimes I'll just put that on an athlete's training plan. I'm like your job today is to pack and as much as you say, you're going to be running around your house to try to find everything, we'll count that as the cardio for the day.

Taryn Richardson  40:19

I've actually got a Race Pack List for that reason, which I'll link in the show notes if people want to grab it, because that's one of the things that I set up when I was racing, that people are like, "That's a great idea. Why don't I do that?" So I created one with all of the things that you're going to need so that you can literally just check that box off, to know that you've got everything and it just helps that whole process be less stressful. Because so many people realise that they don't have enough race nutrition in race week, or they haven't got spare tubes and all that sort of stuff. So it'll be linked below if you do want to go and grab that to help that whole race week carnage be less stressful.

Elizabeth James  40:56

Oh, that's awesome. Anything we can do to reduce that race week stress is going to be helpful.

Taryn Richardson  41:01

Yeah, thank you so much for sharing your insights with me on tapering from the coaching perspective, but also as an elite athlete. I think that's a really nice overview of what taper can look like for people and to get people to start actually thinking about what their taper is. Because like you said, there's so many mistakes that people make. I know a lot of athletes struggle with taper. But after today, they should have some really clear direction and some practical ideas on how to actually implement it for their next race. So if people want to connect with you, Elizabeth, how do they go about doing that?

Elizabeth James  41:34

Yeah. Oh, my goodness. I would love that. I mean, talking anything triathlon and connecting with athletes is seriously my passion. It's what drives me, it's why I love coaching. So yeah, I'm on Facebook, just as Elizabeth James. My athletes call me EJ, so on Instagram, I'm journey_with_EJ. So there's a couple underscores there. So it's like journey_with_EJ and on Twitter as well there. But yeah, I mean, on all the socials. I would love to connect with anybody and follow up on questions that they might have about the taper.

Taryn Richardson  42:09

So what's next for you this year? What have you got planned events wise in your pro calendar?

Elizabeth James  42:14

Ooh, I have a lot of ideas and not a lot of plans yet, which is rather unusual for me. So I'm very much hoping to do Ironman New Zealand and then come back to the States and do Ironman Texas. The plan is also to spend a little time over in Europe in the summer, and do a little series with some of the challenge races over there. So still putting the finishing touches on some other athletes that I can visit with and train with then maybe experience some of the races with as well. So I have a lot of ideas, but not concrete plans nailed down yet, but lots of travel involved. So my husband and I are super excited. I mean, want to go to New Zealand, want to go to Europe, hope to spend some time training with the crew in Boulder later in the summer. And then I am super hopeful that like the Fall schedule will include a couple Ironman races in the States as well just to bring things home for the holidays.

Taryn Richardson  43:15

Nice. Well if you do do Ironman New Zealand, you'll have to come and visit us here in Australia.

Elizabeth James  43:21

Oh, absolutely. Yes, I won't make it that far across the world and only stop in New Zealand. I will come to Australia, too if I can.

Taryn Richardson  43:29

All right. Well, here's hoping to a really successful and healthy 2023 for you.

Elizabeth James  43:33

Thank you.

Taryn Richardson  43:38

Thanks for joining me for this episode of the Triathlon Nutrition Academy podcast. I would love to hear from you. If you have any questions or want to share with me what you've learned, email me at [email protected]. You can also spread the word by leaving me a review and taking a screenshot of you listening to the show. Don't forget to tag me on social media, @dietitian.approved, so I can give you a shout out, too. If you want to learn more about what we do, head to dietitianapproved.com. And if you want to learn more about the Triathlon Nutrition Academy program, head to dietitianapproved.com/academy. Thanks for joining me and I look forward to helping you smashed in the fourth leg - nutrition! 


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