Designing The Perfect Pre-Race taper
Over the years I’ve seen many athletes not achieve their full potential in races because they failed to execute a proper pre-race taper.
I’ve witnessed triathletes who have not backed off enough and have arrived at the event tired and flat; I’ve also seen those who have dialled back they're training too much, and dulled the fitness that they had taken months to hone.
Follow my prescription as we countdown to race day, and you’ll experience that perfect mix of aerobic and high intensity training that will optimise your final 3 weeks before the race.
22 Days to 10 Days Before Your Race
Maintain your schedule. Maintain the same regimen of days training per week and disciplines practiced per week. If you normally run on Tuesdays, then continue to do it! Don’t alter your schedule.
Long training days. Your training is nearly complete, and so you should resist “cramming” your final long workouts too close to the event. If you’re planning a long run, schedule your last one 18-22 days before race day. Your last long bike should take place 14-21 days from race day. Your long swim: 9-10 days prior.
Maintain “like intensity” but reduce the segment length of repeats. There is a great physiological return on reducing your sub-threshold to threshold training to between 90 sec to 3.5 min per repeat. These shorter segments even with incomplete recovery will not leave you whipped after the workout.
Resisting the temptation to lengthen the repeats maintains the adaptive stress of the session but enhances your day-to-day recovery.
Notice improved performance. One characteristic of a proper taper is that you’ll begin to feel a bit fresher during and after the workouts, while experiencing a 2–5% increase in performance (either by comparing tangible measurements or Perceived Exertion). For example, all of your training sessions might feel easier with a concurrent increase in speed, watts or simultaneous reduction in heart rate.
Simply, you should begin to feel like you’re flowing at less effort. This sensation is a positive affirmation that your training was effective and you’re on track for a good race.
Reduce overall training time. A reduction in total training time should start during this taper block. Looking at weekly training volumes, my suggestion is not to reduce the volumes by a fixed percentage. The problem with this math is that the athletes who train 11-14 hours per week cannot compare themselves with those training 30-35 hours weekly.
Here’re my percentage reductions based on your hours per week: For those logging 11-14 hours per week, reduce your volume by about 15%. If you’re typically training 15-22 hours, bring the volume down by 20%. If you’re at 23-30 hours, then reduce that by 25%, and if you’re training more than 30 hours, then reduce that by 30%.
These percentage reductions should be reflected most proportionately in your runs, because the eccentric load and recovery from running are more substantial. Also, be sure to look at your personal strengths & weaknesses and reduce accordingly.
Maintain your strength training. Eliminate the heavy lifts or explosive plyometrics, and reduce the weight and number of reps, but keep with your typical routine. Take the exercises to fatigue but never failure. If you’re on a minimal strength program, continue at least twice per week emphasizing core, gluteal, rotator and back strength, plus maintain any foam rolling and stretching.
Watch your weight. Don’t gain weight or hit your optimum race weight during this time block. Eat nutrient dense foods with healthy fats and protein at all meals. Cut back on simple carbohydrates. If you’re madly driven to lose weight during the final ten days of this part of the taper, then keep this weight loss to no more .5% of your body weight.
Continue your bodywork. Maintain treatments with your PT, massage therapist, acupuncturist or yoga. These are all good, but don’t try something new during this period!
9 Days and Counting to Race Day
Keep to your schedule. Maintain the same regimen and order of your training, both in terms of days per week and disciplines per day.
Reduce your “long” distances. Your longest run should fall on Day 9 or Day 8 before the race, and it should be 35-50% shorter than the last long run at the start of your taper. For example if you entered the taper with runs at 17 miles, then this run should be just 8.5 to 11 miles. Your long bike should be similarly reduced, and your long swim workout reduced by15%.
Maintain intensity. Intensity should be maintained up to three days before the race. However, the set length will be reduced. Rather than looking at percentages, it’s easier to maintain “like “ intensities in all three. This includes muscular overload, recovery between sets and breathing rates during exertion and recovery.
The key is short sets of 4-12 min, and short segments of 30-90 sec. The single most important factor in implementing a proper taper — and this includes for Kona — is not to perform only aerobic workouts; it’s vital that you keep up your intensity but dramatically shorten the sets. This is when you’re “priming your engine”.
Lastly, maintain the steady state aerobic work, particularly on the bike. This allows you to finish these sessions with elevated endorphins, which will help to maintain calmness during this period.
I always had to feel my endorphin buzz or I’d go crazy leading up to the race; I’d workout just enough to take off the edge and allow myself to sleep.
Sleep. Get more if you can and start shifting your bedtime hours or minutes a bit earlier so that the night before the race its “lights out” at about 8:30 pm.
Dinner. Begin shifting your dinner so the last two nights before the event you’re comfortable with finishing dinner at 6pm. This will give you a 10-hour stomach transit time before your early morning wakeup on race morning.
Maintain strength training. Right up through Wednesday of race week – 4 days before the start – keep to your routines. Reduce the weight and just do one or two sets of all exercises. Maintain stretching and your foam rolling routines.
Dial down the alcohol. Eat right and reduce your alcohol consumption. If you like a glass of wine or beer with the evening meal, have no more than 2 per day.
Watch your weight. Don’t overeat due to nervousness.
Days 5 and 4 Before the Race
Hit the intensity at the same levels you’ve been training. Breathe hard, make your muscles work and remind yourself of the physical cues that allow you to flow. A set of 6 x 2.5 min on the bike at race pace would be perfect! A run at 8 x 30-45sec at your half IM pace would be just right. For your swim, 12x75m at race pace. Add a steady state aerobic block onto the end of each session to complete the workout.
Strength training. Conduct your final strength session on either day.
Relax with a massage, PT or yoga.
Write down the key phrases that allow you to sense the easiness when you’re racing in each discipline. Consider these to be your mantras or cues.
Swim – relaxed arms, wiggle your fingers in the recovery, firm catch.
Bike – perfect circles with a softness yet solid stroke at the bottom. Long through the lower torso and draw the belly in to engage the core, look at your leg muscles while they’re pumping down the Queen K and see yourself on your last great ride at home.
Run – light but firm hold on ground contact. No wobbling from side to side. Maintain a relaxed face, head, neck, etc.
Visualise a mental roadmap of the course. For all 3 disciplines, know the turns, the tough spots and how YOU are going to break-up the course.
Day 3 and Counting
You can still work hard in your sessions but keep them very short and leaving you a bit antsy to test yourself.
Get out of the midday sun. Exercise in the morning. Try to swim on the race course, if possible.
Stay hydrated, keep your feet elevated, minimize your time at the expo and walking around downtown. Relax.
Practice your race strategy. Anticipate the inevitable tough patches you’ll experience during the race, and think about how you’ll work through them. Accept that you must be spontaneous on the race course and adapt. There is only one potential barrier: mentally surrendering. Don’t do it!
Day Before the Race
Do all three disciplines and get a light sweat on the bike. Mix up your strokes on the swim. It’s okay to make a handful of efforts at almost race pace, but don’t overdo it! Sting your legs for 30 sec and know that tomorrow the snap will be there.