If you have ever trained for an event, like REALLY trained for one, you have been there. You’ve spent countless hours and dollars trying to maximize your fitness so you can throw down a good performance. A lot of blood, sweat, and maybe some tears (not from me of course) have been shed to get you prepared, and it all comes down to the last 1-3 weeks. You’ve read this and that on the forums. So and so says 2 weeks, and Joe Schmoe suggests only easing off the week of the race. But you feel really good! Why would I back down, like WAY down!? I don’t want to lose fitness. I think I can get another 1-2% if I just do one more hard session. Or maybe if I just do that last long run I’ll breeze right past “the wall”.
PUT DOWN THE PADDLE AND STOP THE MENTAL PING PONG!
We are here to set the record straight. After years of leading people into big “A” races, we know what works, what doesn’t, and what happens when you let your mind get the best of you and divert you from the program at the last minute. So for all you crazy paranoid athletes out there, strap on your armadillo helmet, follow these guidelines, and you will be well on your way to a Personal Best Performance.
1. The length of the taper is determined by the workload of the previous training block, not the duration of the race. Yes, if you are doing a sprint tri or a 5k, you don’t need much, if any, taper compared to an ironman or marathon. But if you had your biggest training load to date 4 weeks out from a priority short course race, you are still likely going to need to bring down the load over the next 3 weeks leading into the race. On the other hand, if you hit a recovery week 3-4 weeks out from a big race, you won’t likely need more than 1-2 weeks to prime the body. The key to getting this timing right is to work backwards in your planning from race day, know the load you will be getting 4-6 weeks out from any A race, and plan recovery (adaption) and taper weeks accordingly. Do you best not to hit a full on recovery week within 3 weeks of a big race. If you need more info on recovery weeks, check this out.
2. You will not lose fitness in 2-3 weeks. Unless you just slack off completely, you are not going to lose fitness. This is the number one concern we hear from athletes once we start backing them off before a big race. The idea of the taper is to keep the intensity high while building in more recovery time to allow adaptions to be made from the previous training block. The high end threshold work will do the trick in maintaining your aerobic base so don’t panic if you haven’t done a long run or ride in the last couple weeks. Wooosaaaa!
3. You will not gain fitness in the last week. Once you reach race week, the worst thing you can do is too much. You are not going to gain anything from one last hard or long workout. The gains you will make will come from recovering completely from the last 3-4 weeks of training. Yes, you need to keep intensity in the tail end of your taper, even the day before the race for some, but it should be short intervals with a lot of recovery. All you are looking to do is keep the systems primed, not run a PR the day before a race. So to all of you Ironman athletes out there riding the course the week of the race….STOP. Seriously.
4. Keep the intensity high and decrease the volume by 10-20% each week. While tapering, you should pretty much be focused on training at race intensity. If you don’t train a lot at a goal pace, power, or whatever, there is NO chance you will do that in a race. I repeat, if you don’t train at the level you want to race, there is NO chance you will achieve that level on race day. So keep the hard stuff really hard, and the easy stuff painfully easy. There really is no need for in between during the taper. That extra time should be spent resting. The week before race week, you should only be doing about 20-30% of the volume in the previous block of training. So, if you averaged 10 hours in the last block of training, you essentially taper down to about 7-8 hours the week before the race. (Note: this assumes you have been doing proper training loads…if you decided to hammer out 34 hours of training 3 weeks out from your race…disregard this advice and do MUCH MORE decreasing of volume).
5. Plan everything ahead of time. One of the best things you can do to manage the craziness of a taper is to already have everything planned out. This includes your training. Just follow the plan and go about your business. The other side of planning is having your travel accommodations, itineraries, time off work, and other logistical items ready before you start tapering. This is a HUGE one for athletes with kids. I have seen the stress of planning and managing travel at the last minute melt down the strongest of athletes. The lesser training volume allows more time for the mind to wander and stress out about pretty much anything. If you need some help planning your training and taking that off your plate, don’t hesitate to give us a shout.
6. Stay off the forums! Really not much else to say here besides the fact that these things are riddled with folks that have no idea what they are doing. Don’t listen to anyone but your plan and/or your coach. Hold the course. If your friend jumps off a bridge would you? Maybe. But if someone whom you have never met took that leap, you’d probably make a confused face and bid them adieu.
7. Don’t change anything that affects personal performance. These items include, but are not limited to: your diet, your shoes (see exception below), your bike, your bike fit, your race nutrition plan (which should have been your training nutrition plan for the last several weeks), your choice of chamois, your spouse, your house, and any other life changing part of your being.
8. Test your race set up during the taper. I am not condoning riding a disc wheel at your next group ride, I am just saying to test EVERYTHING out well before the race. This gives you time to break in new shoes (only if the exact same model), replace warn out parts, and take one more source of stress off your plate. This is NOT a good time to get your bike completely tuned up. You need time to allow cables to stretch so final adjustments can be made to your shifting. Don’t be that person begging your local bike shop to get your bike tuned up before you leave for your big race.
9. Stay fueled and stay hydrated. This is a big one. You need to keep good sources of fuel and plenty of fluids coming in your body. For one, you want to recover quickly from the harder sessions you should be doing. You also don’t want to be running around consistently dehydrated. Why? Well for one, a 3% drop in body fluids has been shown to negatively affect performance. Let it also be known that it can take 24-48 hours to get rehydrated, so don’t wait until race week to top off your fluids. Lastly, the taper period is NOT THE TIME TO LOSE WEIGHT. If you are trying to get to race weight during your taper, you are making a huge mistake. Restricting calories during high intensity training blocks will greatly decrease the quality of your workouts, your recovery, and your overall performance.
10. Trust Your Training. You did the work. Nothing more you can do now besides cash in your chips. Grip and Rip!