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How to Taper with Intent

20 April

Just let me sleep ten more minutes
Creative Commons License photo credit: rharrison

As the early big races of the season are approaching, it’s time to once again consider perhaps the hardest part of your training: the taper. While  almost every triathlete has heard of tapering, very few actually get it right. This article has two goals: to help you understand your personal needs and cues for tapering based on your event, and to give you active steps you can take to implement your taper.
Before we begin, two caveats:

  1. Those of you looking for number crunching and data-driven analyses will have to go elsewhere. In my experience as a coach, each individual and indeed each specific taper is different — formulas are nothing more than a slightly more specific guideline.
  2. I believe the taper is equal parts physiology and psychology; understanding and incorporating both elements into your pre-race plan is the only way to build the ideal taper for you.

“Not Doing” and the Type A Athlete
The hardest part about executing a proper paper is understanding when doing more actually yields less. There is a distinct point of diminishing returns, and a true taper begins when you actively stop working to create fatigue. By that I mean you are legitimately focused on what we would call recovery and sharpening. The first phase of your taper is recovering, letting the work that you have most recently done — some of your longest bikes, runs, and swims of the entire year — be absorbed.

Once your body is well along the path of absorbing that work, only then can you move to sharpening.  This is where you can begin to add a little bit of intensity back into the equation. Perhaps even including some race pace efforts, as these will help to acclimatize your body to where  you want it to be by the time the race day arrives.

Testing Your Fitness
One of the biggest challenges that endurance athletes face as their key event gets closer is a desire to test their fitness. In many ways a large part of the exercise in preparing for an endurance event involves spending weeks and months building your fitness in preparation for a single day. The nature of the event itself, however, prevents you from actually doing your event in training.

It’s not like a 5K race for example, where you can go out and do a bunch of 5K racing to get ready to do more 5K races. As a result, when your race day approaches, you really have no sense of where you are in terms of how you’re going to be able to put your race together. The temptation then, as the race gets closer, is to go out and do a couple of key workouts.

Perhaps, for example, if you’re doing a Half Ironman, you might be tempted to go out and ride 56 miles (or something close to it) at your goal race pace just to make sure you can really do it.

Or maybe you have a time in mind. You’re going to go out and do whatever it takes to earn that time despite the fact that you’re on a test course in a non-race environment. And you’re not rested. Your body will respond to that call for action. And it will deliverable the goods most of the time. The problem being that now you’ve proven you’ve got the goods means you will now most likely not have the goods by the time you need them to race!

Trust your plan, trust your taper. Take confidence in the fact that you have done tons of training and that you have a very long day — up to 140.6 miles — to demonstrate how well you have prepared.

Last Minute Speed
Lastly, there is often a last minute desire to put in some kind of speed work to become a little bit faster.  You’re maybe six to eight weeks out from your race, you’ve done a couple of key workouts, put in a big block of training, and now that you’re starting to taper you’re looking at where you’ve been. You’re looking at what you’ve done. And in looking at where you want to be…there’s a little bit of a gap.

How can I taper suddenly becomes, “Can I please go out and do some work?” “Can I please go out and put in another block of training, do a little bit more intensity, and then reap those results on race day?”  And the quick answer to that is what you already know: absolutely not.  Any extra work you do now during the taper period is only going to interfere with your body’s ability to absorb the work that you’ve already done.

It’s very tempting to allow your brain to take over the taper process.  From your brain’s perspective the only workout that really is still on your mind is the one you did just yesterday or the day before. But your body speaks in a much more holistic and long-term manner.  It’s still dealing with workouts you put in the bank three weeks ago and the residual fatigue from that work.

If your fitness is a lake, each workout then is a giant stone that you drop into the water. The effects of that work are the ripples that spread out across the surface. That’s what happens from each workout, and every additional workout you do is another stone you put in that pond.  More ripples, and ripples upon ripples.  Those add up over time and in some cases, like a miniature butterfly effect, even seemingly unconnected events can have a significant fatigue wave to them.  And if you don’t take the requisite recovery you’re going to be facing a seriously underwhelming race day.

If you are concerned about getting some last minute speed, there are some things you can do to get that speed.

Number one, the easiest thing to do is obviously to rest.  The more rest you can get, the better off you will be.

Number two, body composition.  If you could do anything in the last two to three weeks  to keep the weight down, or perhaps take a little bit of weight off in a sensible way, you will absolutely reap the benefits of that work and you will be fast on race day just by virtue of having to carry less of you around.

Another option for you of course is to check into your equipment.  Is everything dialed in?  Do you need to put a new wheel set on your bike?  Perhaps new tires.  Perhaps you can lube things up, take care of your bike.  If you’re doing another type of adventure race, maybe you can look into new equipment or just cleaning up and tightening the bolts on all the equipment you do have.  The point being that you can be fast on race day simply by having better equipment and using that equipment better during the race situation.

The Only Two Race Morning Goals That Matter
The entire point your taper is to get you 100% physically and mentally ready to race.  That’s it. It’s very tempting to think about the need to gain speed, to look for a miracle workout that’s going to prove that you really are ready, but ultimately the goal of the taper is to make sure you are rested.

After months of training, you now have to focus your attention and energy towards the not doing, towards things that are going to promote your ability to have a full stock of energy when you need it on race day.

Making that switch is very difficult to do; a lot of people really get confused and really suffer because they are unable to manage that execution and to do the work that’s really required to be as fast as you can be on race day.  There’s so much that it comes down to getting yourself ready.

So, you need to sit down and really start thinking about what it is that you need to line up from a mental standpoint, as well as a physical standpoint, to be ready to execute on the day.  You can review your training logs to make sure you’ve done the good work.  You can go ahead and review your equipment and feel confident about what you have.  You can go ahead and outline the race plan to make sure that you know what you’re going to do on the day.  You can make sure that your travel arrangements are all lined up, everything’s printed out, all the itineraries, family friends, everyone else knows what they need to do.

Good luck on race day and remember to smile and have fun!

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