The High Performance Taper
Coach’s Note by Lance Watson
You’ve done the hard yards, the long miles. Its 2 weeks till your Ironman, or “A” race. It’s time to hit the couch, put your feet up, and do nothing… or is it? Though the bulk of the physical work may be done, taper time can have the greatest impact on your race performance if done well.
While compiling some useful taper tips, I consulted Lisa Bentley, an athlete whom I coached throughout her high performance career and to 11 Ironman wins. I asked the Triathlon Hall of Fame inductee to include her taper “performance tips”.
Lower Training Volume
Lowering training volume will decrease fatigue. For major races, you should decrease training volume 2 weeks prior to the race. In the final 10-14 days before a race, no further training improvements will be made before the event. You can lower volume in your endurance workouts without any fear of compromising performance. If you normally train for 12-15 hours per week, you might decrease training to around 5-7 hours in the week prior to an event.
LB’s Performance Tip: “With the dramatic reduction in training, it is important to keep moving, to stretch and get massage. Don’t do anything that you don’t usually do. For example, don’t try yoga if you have never done it. Yes, yoga can be relaxing, but it won’t be relaxing if you over-do it.
During these 14 days, do not “test” yourself or your fitness. If you can commit to this, then you will make two huge strides in your taper. First of all, you will not “think” about testing yourself and that will give your mind a rest from unconfident thoughts and you will be able to focus confidently on your race visualization. Secondly, your body will thank you for the rest and all of the little training micro-traumas can heal so that you can earn some new muscular traumas on race day!”
Maintain Some Intensity
Maintain some training intensity leading into the race, but decrease the number of intervals and increase the amount of rest. Race pace efforts will prepare your body and mind for the challenge ahead, keep you loose and keep your body fine-tuned.
LB’s Performance Tip: “In terms of physical race preparation, keep your workouts short and at race pace. During the week of the Ironman, most of my sessions were less than one hour and produce no fatigue. Swim sessions focus on doing 50’s, 100’s and maybe a few 200’s at race pace. Biking and running involve some 30 second to 2 minute pickups and maybe a few miles at race pace. These are always feel good efforts with lots of rest in between. If I feel injured or ill, I ask myself “do I have more to gain or to lose by doing that session?” When on the verge of injury or illness, you always have more to lose by doing a race prep training activity. The two weeks before the race prepare you to race. Running with mild achilles tendonitis will not prepare you to race fast!”
Keep Your Training Schedule
The body is accustomed to specific frequencies of volume and intensity in training. Don’t disrupt your regular training pattern by adding extra workouts, deleting workouts and changing the time of day that certain workouts are performed. If you normally do 2 or 3 early morning swims per week, keep swimming early. With less training volume, don’t fill your day with “busy work”. Schedule restful activities, like reading and movies. Having a schedule helps keep nerves in check as well.
LB’s Performance Tip: “Replace the physical training with some scheduled mental preparation especially in the week before the race. Once I wake up in the morning, I spend an extra 30 minutes in bed with my eyes shut visualizing the race. I can see myself race day morning preparing my bike, starting the swim, at 2 km in the swim, in transition, etc. I picture myself as I want to “be” on race day – with a perfect swim stroke, controlled transitions, content and thinking positively, smooth pedal stroke and quick running turnover. I visualize excellence. There is no mental benefit to seeing my training imperfections because there is nothing that I can do about them now – but by seeing myself executing the race perfectly, I might, in fact, realize the picture in my mind. Yet, I am also realistic. I think about some of the challenges that I might be confronted with and I think about how I, the perfect racer, would want to handle them. I establish plan A, plan B and plan C. I believe that those 30 minutes was the most important part of my taper.”
The extra free time you have before a race can be spent planning your equipment. Take the time to create a checklist of items you will need. Start packing these items and buying supplies (like PowerGels and Salt Stick) well before you leave for the event. Get your bike to the shop early. Determine what outfit you will race in, how you will carry your nutrition on your bike, etc.
LB’s Performance Tip: “Be extremely organized. Think, and rethink all the logistics of the race. Being disorganized leads to stress, which takes energy away from your race. I make lists of things to do each day. I also make a list of items for my swim to bike bag and bike to run bag and a list of things that I need to bring to the race on race day morning. Trust me, your rational thoughts will be doing flip-flops in the 48 hours before the race and you will not trust yourself to remember everything. I prepare the lists when I am still rational and not nervous or too excited. Then, on race day morning, I just check off the items on the list. Yes, the pen shakes in my hand, but I can get the job done.”
If You Are Travelling…
Travel should be integrated into your training and race plan. Don’t do your biggest day of training prior to a long flight or drive. Take a rest day before and after a long trip that includes very light training. Plan to stay well hydrated (not to excess) and properly nourished when you travel, carrying bottled water and healthy snacks with you on your trip. It’s important to stay mobile when you travel. Take frequent rest stops to stretch or walk around to stay limber.
If possible, try to get your numbers and race package as soon as possible after arrival. You can calm nerves and focus on the race when you have this information.
LB’s Performance Tip: “Plan to travel to the race early enough so that you can recover from the travel. Traveling east can wreak havoc on your body. You will need at least one day per hour of time change to acclimatize perfectly. Being “off” by 5% on Ironman race because of jetlag can be the difference between qualifying for the Hawaii Ironman or not. If your goal race time is 10 hours, then a 5% jetlag factor will add 30 minutes to your finish. Also, factor in time to acclimatize to the heat if you choose to race in a tropical location. I allow about 8 to 10 days to acclimatize to the conditions in Kona.”
Learn the Course
Pre-drive the race route. Ideally, you will do this at least 2 days before the actual event - don’t jam up your pre-race day. Take the time to study the terrain and think about your pacing and race strategy. Knowing the course is one of the keys to maximizing your performance in any race. If the race is a major goal for the season, you may wish to plan a scouting trip to the venue prior to the race. You could do this several weeks or even months ahead of the race.
LB’s Performance Tip: “Once you factor in travel recovery time, also consider arriving at your race destination early enough so that you have time to tour the course. Those 3 days before an Ironman are so busy with registration and preparing your gear for race day, that you might need another day in your itinerary allow yourself the opportunity to see the course. By driving the bike course or riding portions of the route or doing one of your pre-race run sessions on part of the run course, you will be able to add that visual to your pre-race mental preparation and you will be doing hands-on visualization. Three days before Ironman, I drove the bike course and identified the key areas where my skills would be maximized and areas where I might have to be extra tough. On race day, I used this information and built those elements into my race strategy.”
Attitude of Gratitude
All the work and preparation are over, and it’s time to get out and enjoy your fitness. Remember how lucky you are to have a health body and to be taking part in the sport you love to do with a group of like-minded people. Decide to enjoy the day.
LB’s Performance Tip: “As important as mental preparation is, be sure to take time off from all race preparation. Do your mental homework and leave it. Do your physical race prep and then leave it. Visit the expo and register and then leave it. Fill your mind with other thoughts. Avoid mental overtraining and avoid excessive race stimulation. I set aside scheduled time for all of my race tasks and for my mental preparation and once that time passes, I move on. Often, I’ll slip into mental prep mode accidentally, but I quickly remind myself that I have done my mental rehearsal and it is “me time” or “family time”. At the Hawaii Ironman one year, I found myself so over-stimulated that I could not go to the expo and I never swam at the pier (Dig-Me Beach). I can sense when I need a break from race mode, but the difficulty is in acting on it. Race day requires so much mental stamina that you need to rest your mind in those days before the race. Read a novel. Make a list of movies you had to miss during your Ironman training and rent them. Don’t necessarily plan any big projects for your taper because your mind needs to rest. Planning your garden or house renovations will not be a rest.
Avoid being over-stimulated by your friends and family. Everyone around you will be in race mode. Some of your fellow competitors might be panicking and they might draw you into that panic mode. Remember those high school days of writing exams. There were always those anxious students. “Did you study that? I studied for 20 hours. Oh I learned that stuff. Of course that chapter is on the exam.” Meanwhile, you studied for 10 hours and only dabbled on that particular chapter. Resist comparing training schedules and long ride and run frequency and duration. You made your training and coaching choices. Accept them. Avoid being around people who drain your energy. Create space for yourself away from the Ironman chatter. You will likely even need to distance yourself from well-meaning and loving family members who might be full of suggestions which might only serve to un-nerve you.”
Lance Watson, LifeSport head coach, has trained a number of Ironman, Olympic and age-group Champions over the past 30 years. He enjoys coaching athletes of all levels.
Contact Lance to tackle your first IRONMAN or to perform at a higher level.