Voice of the Nation

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The Ironman Tweak

09 March

I am often asked about the proper Ironman® Taper. In fact, I think I just saw another post about it on the USAT coaches listserv. People want to know how much to decrease their training, where to continue working to stay sharp, etc. And they want a formula, some kind of random Xhours times Yeffort divided by Ddiscipline ALL multplied by a percentage of total Vvolume for that given week, which will somehow yield the appropriate amount of training to be done.

There are some serious problems with this taper assumption, and they are important to cover quickly so that you know where I am coming from.

  1. Most Folks Don’t Have A Plan In The First Place: You know these folks well. They are the ones who either (A) do whatever it is you do that weekend, kinda just tagging along and then copying your workout. These folks are easily identified as they are always asking, “Soooooo, what are you up to this week?” The second type, (B), just do the same thing week after week. These folks will do the same century ride, every weekend, for three months (ouch), usually followed by some sick 10-mile run. Then they’ll run the next day just to “practice” running on tired legs (don’t even get me started with that one!). Not only is the lack of creativity enough to crush you mentally, the fact that there is no real recovery means that most of these athletes will have no race in their legs – regardless of the taper – by the time the big day arrives.
  2. A Formula Would Assume That We’ve All Done The Same Work Thus Far: Even with the athletes I coach, for the same event, there is such a huge disparity in the VOLUME of work done as well as the INTENSITY of the specific work that if I were to just assign a general protocol for tapering, everyone would lose out. Think about it. When’s the last time you completed all your specified training in a given week? To the letter; right to the intensity specified? You know, where family, work, weather, landscaping, darkness, or some other factor didn’t interfere? That’s what I thought. Besides, think of it like the much malaligned food pyramid. We all know (now) that it’s ridiculous to eat according to some overly generalized set of recommendations…yet most IMers want that security for themselves as they prepare. Which leads me to my next point…
  3. A Huge Desire for a Special Taper is Usually Linked to an Underlying Concern For The Event: In other words, folks who really want a taper, really badly, are simply expressing their concern that their training, up until now, has been ineffective and maybe, just maybe, this magical taper protocol will help them to salvage their race day. If I had any marketing savvy, I would spend all my time/resources on just selling taper plans instead of coaching athletes for 6+ months. Folks are so nervous at this point that they are renting Zipp 808s for race day (even though they’ve never averaged faster than 18mph in training), buying supplements they’ve never tried before, checking out aero helmets on line, even posting to forums about whether or not they should shave ALL their body hair for race day (yeah, getting that bit behind your elbows / right below your triceps makes a killer difference in the aeroposition).

If you find yourself in any of these places, it’s time to take a deep breath and relax. Your work is done. Repeat after me: My Training Is Done. There is, seriously, no tangible performance benefit to be gained from any last killer workout in the final three weeks leading up to your IM race day. Sure, depending on your strengths/weaknessess, fitness level, and race day goals, there might be a few key workouts left to do, but in general you can do more damage to your race day now than anything else. In my five + years of coaching, I have had athletes crash their bikes, break something (like a collarbone or elbow), tweak a tendon or calf muscle, and do some ridiculous carbo-loading protocol that led to them looking more like a cheese-puff than a triathlete.

This might sound like one really unfortunate athlete, but the reality is that this athlete lives inside each and everyone of us and we must find a way to deal with it before our own race is compromised.

The point of tapering for an IM race is to make sure you are ready to swim, bike, and run to the best of your ability on race day. Period. Everything else should be built around this goal. Notice how I didn’t say to swim faster, or bike harder, or run in super-fancy-new-lightweight-kicks-that-you-have-never-tested-more-than-30-mins. From my perspective as a coach, I have three distinct goals for my tapering athletes.

  1. Mentally Prepare Them To Execute On Raceday: There are a lot of important elements to executing an IM race well. Mess up any of them (pacing, nutrition, gear, focus, etc.) and your day can be done before you know it. As most athletes have been training 12+ months for this event, during the taper period I really try to help them learn their race plan. I write it to them. We talk about it. I have them repeat it back to me. I call them two days out and we discuss it again. There can never be enough conversation about the plan, and the “newer” the athlete, the more important these discussions are. An appropriately paced bike at IM Wisconsin (say 6:45) despite all the fast bikers, led a PTS client doing her first IM race to pass over 800 people on the run as she ran a 4:30. 800 people. If I could tell you how to pass almost 50% of the field on raceday, you’d listen up. Well, it’s called having a plan and sticking to it. Check it out.
  2. Physically Prepare Them For Raceday: Yes, this part includes some workout stuff. But first, it’s more important that folks have the right gear for race day. They should pack every tri thing they own to bring with them, including stuff for rain, cold, heat, etc. They should have their bike overhauled two weeks out so they can test it. They should check their run shoes at four weeks out to make sure they are in good enough shape for race day. They should be doing their final tune up rides/runs in raceday gear with all the stuff on their bike so they know what does/doesn’t work. They should be rehearsing their transitions (at least once physically) so they can execute without freaking on race day.

    As for workouts, in the last three weeks, there are only a couple of things I want my athletes to get done.

    Swim workouts should be 50% in open water, 50% in the pool. Open water swimming is a relaxed endurance pace with a focus on sighting, pool swimming should include the tempo work to stay sharp (think 10 x 100 on good rest or 3 x 500 as 500, 5×100, 10×50, etc.).

    Bike workouts should number 3 to 4 in a week. One race-paced ride as part of a brick (2-2.5 hours), one endurance ride (2-3 hours), one strength ride (think 10 x 45 seconds in big gear with 45-second recoveries in the middle of an easier ride). Any other ride should be easy, and most of your riding (even the aforementioned ones) should be at IM goal pace. Which is long training ride pace. Which is an easy pace, not some Jan Ullrich-like time trial effort!!!!!

    Run workouts are definitely on the shorter side here, as they take the longest recovery. You will have two longer runs left. One of 1:45 in your third week, one of 1:30 no closer than 10 days out. All zone 2. In weeks 3 and 2, you will have a short, zone 2 30-min run off of your endurance bike, and a short hard run off your bike for the brick workout (think 30 mins as 15-mins out hard, back 15-mins easy). Anything else should just be around technique and form, maybe some strides (like 20 seconds fast, 40 seconds easy) for footspeed.

    During Race Week folks should swim every day as possible. They should bike three times, once for an hour, once for 45 mins, and finally, once for 30 mins the day before. Hour bike should be as close to arrival as possible to make sure the bike is functional, etc. Runs should all be 30-40 mins, all should be out easy, back with some pick ups but that’s it. The majority of your times should be spent off your feet, reading, watching TV or *gasp* hanging out with your family and friends.

  3. Impart A Sense of Perspective: This is the most important thing I can do. Without this perspective, folks can really get themselves out of wack. They can get uptight, angry, twitchy, mean-spirited, carried-away, you name it. Here’s the deal. You are going to do an Ironman. You are physically-able to swim bike and run. You have the support of your family and friends. You have the money to be able to buy the gear you need. You have the job that allows you to take time off to travel and race the event. You have the means to buy the food you need to eat, etc. You are an incredibly fortunate person.

Never forget this, because the moment that humility leaves your spirit, you will be smacked-down by the triathlon karma gods. When you get a flat, just get off, get a bite to eat and start changing. Kneeling on the side of the road, wringing your hands and sobbing will get little accomplished…besides, we will all have issues on race day…you can be thankful that you have had yours, it is out of the way, and now you can race.

Anyway, that’s enough for me this holiday morning. As you can tell, I have Lake Placid on the brain…but that’s a good thing. Time to motivate, stop eating all this coffee, and get to a lake and swim. Or something.

Happy Training!

Coach Patrick

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