By Matt Koorey and Jeff “The Hammer” Devlin.
Last month we covered preparation for the Half-Ironman. This month we take at look at tapering your training, hopefully leading into a great performance on race day. We say hopefully because taper’s can sometimes be tricky, and are most definitely very personal. What brings you “up” for a great performance might see another athlete show up on the line half comatosed from too much rest, or too fatigued from overdoing it. There is no textbook taper that works for everyone, just as there is no textbook training program. What will help you in perfecting your taper is the ability to know your body, how it is feeling, and how it responds to certain workouts.
This is where keeping a training log proves invaluable! Being able to look back on the 1-4 weeks leading up to your best races and worst races can be very helpful in tailoring the final weeks and bringing you to a peak for the next big event. Firstly though, you’ll have to toss that ego out the door and cue into what your body is telling you, as opposed to what your ego is telling you to do. Or better yet, get a coach who works closely enough with their athlete’s so that in time he/she has a pretty good “feeling” for what the athlete needs and how they will respond.
Now, in order to “taper” you first need to have something to “taper” from. If you have been consistent with your training load over the past 4-8 weeks or more, there is not much you can do over the last 2 weeks to get in “better” shape or fitness. However, there is A LOT you can do to make yourself tired or too fatigued to give 110% on race day. You need to be fully recovered and fresh on the day of your big race BUT at the same time you don’t want to be stale or flat from too much inactivity leading up to the race. Much depends on the length of race that you are peaking for and how long you expect it to take. Those short flat out sprints may be appropriate if you are peaking for a shorter event or a very hilly long event that has a more “anaerobic” component to it. But for most half ironman or ironman events – you need to be as “aerobic” as possible. The final weeks of training should focus primarily on aerobic and lactate threshold training and complete recovery.
Many athletes train long and hard right up to the Wednesday or Thursday of race week, and then wonder why their performance on race day is sub-par. In particular, the second last week before race day is often a heavy one. BIG MISTAKE! Too much in this week doesn’t leave you with enough time to adequately recover for the “big dance”. For many athletes it’s a good idea to lighten the load from 14 to 10 days pre-race. This is a case of taking a rest and recovering sooner, rather than later, leaving you significantly fresher for some quality training (though at a reduced volume) for the weekend before the race.
Be sure that during the final 4-6 days prior to a “peak” event you don’t do any training that is going to deplete you of your carbohydrate stores or make you tired – the training you do should actually “charge you up” and make you feel more energized. Race week typically involves approximately 30% of the normal training volume, and includes some short efforts of 30 seconds to 4 minutes at race PACE or slightly faster (NOT short, flat out sprints as many athletes seem to think they need). The PACE work is just a reminder to the body of what it “feels” like to operate at a faster pace. You are not going to get any fitter in the final week – you just want to be sure you are fully recovered from the workload of the previous six or more weeks, and that you maintain what you have built. But you still want to stay “sharp”, which is where the PACE work comes in. As an example, on the Tuesday of race week you might do a bike session incorporating 3 x 3:00 at half-ironman race pace, with 4:00 easy recovery after each. On the run, perhaps on Wednesday, you might do 5 x 1:00 with 4:00 easy recovery, also at half-ironman pace. Don’t be tempted to do lengthy sets of intervals at this time. These workouts should leave you feeling good at the end, not trashed.
Now in saying this, this is what works for many of our athletes, but it may not work for you. This is where, as mentioned previously, knowing yourself or having a coach who knows you really helps. Often we find that the thick set, heavily muscled athletes respond best to more rest in their taper, while the more sinewy “aerobic animal” needs to keep moving a little more. For some, too much rest can leave them flat come race day, but If you don’t know yourself well enough then definitely err on the side of caution.
Do you feel the best early in the week or when coming off a day or two of complete rest or do you feel the best toward the end of a training week or after a few days of solid training? This can tell you a lot about what method of tapering will work best for you. Either way, at some point during the 2-3 weeks before the race you need to back off and completely recover (this may be 2-3 days or it may be up to 2 weeks depending on the athlete and the volume/intensity of their training).
In regards to nutrition, the last thing you want to do the week before a big race is alter your normal diet significantly. However, from the Tuesday of race week you should start “fueling up”. Take in more carbohydrates throughout the week, particularly on the day two days before the race. As an endurance athlete you can get thoroughly sick and tired of eating all the time, so you may choose to take in these additional calories in the form of glucose polymer, such as Leppin Enduro. Generally, from the Tuesday onwards, add around 100 grams of carbohydrates per day to your normal diet. You want to make sure your muscle glycogen stores are full come race day. Pay close attention to hydration. If you are a coffee drinker, try cutting back your intake this week to improve your sleep and enhance your recovery. There are also foods that you should avoid during the week before a race if possible. During the 1 or 2 days before competition you should avoid shell fish (which are very toxic), raw foods (difficult to digest) and eating meals too late at night. Your digestive system is not very efficient during sleep and we all need our beauty sleep – you want to look GOOD on race day!
There are a few other important details that could be covered here but, hey, we gotta keep #I#some#I# secrets for our athletes. But try implementing some of the above into your taper plan and see if it has you “ready to rock” on race day.