The Art of Tapering
By Neal Henderson, MS CSCS
After a long season of training and racing, a few of us are lucky enough to qualify for big events like the Nissan Xterra USA Championship in Lake Tahoe and the World Championship on Maui. Successfully competing at one of the big races is a combination of being motivated to train hard, smart enough to know when to back off and (finally) being able to arrive on the starting line in top form, mentally and physically. Many athletes approaching a major race make silly mistakes in the final days and weeks before a big race. We want you prepared to perform your best on YOUR big race day.
Using the principles of periodization to alter the intensity (how hard), volume (how far/how long), and frequency (how often) of training helps build your endurance to peak levels toward the end of the season. The final couple weeks before a race, known as tapering, is where you can improve your racing performances that little bit that everyone is always looking for. Too often, athletes look for the magic bullets. I’ll be the first to admit that when I jumped on my new bike this season, I was stoked. In reality, it’s still the engine that is most important. It is far more powerful to believe in yourself than to attribute your success to something else.
Tapering involves a little science, a little art, and a little luck. The science starts out by changing your training two weeks before your big event. You should have had your hardest overall weeks of training between 2 and 6 weeks before the big race. Two weeks out, it’s time to drop back your volume of training by about 30% of your peak. Cut the volume, but keep the intensity and the frequency.
The neuromuscular component of training and tapering requires you to maintain the number of weekly workouts, while reducing the time/distance of each training session. You might even increase the intensity of one or two workouts in each sport per week by adding short intervals (30 seconds to 2 minutes) to one of your normally aerobic endurance workouts.
Interval workouts during tapering should not break you down. Instead, they should be performed with plenty of recovery. You should finish the workout feeling good, and able to perform more intervals. If you go to the point of exhaustion, you’ve done too much. The effort for these workouts should be slightly faster than your goal race pace.
The final week before the big race should include a further reduction in training volume (about 50% of your peak training volume), and a slight decrease in overall intensity of your training. Again, you want to maintain the frequency of your training for the most part, but you can decrease it slightly by 1 session per sport.
Starting the weekend before, your long endurance sessions should be about 30% shorter than your normal long sessions. For example, if you normally do a 1.5-hour long run on Sunday, you should only run about one hour. Any workout that you do in the final week isn’t really going to improve your performance!
The key is just to get to the starting line fresh and ready to go!
In the final days before the big race, try to change as little about your schedule as possible. This includes eating and sleeping patterns. While travel will usually throw a couple of curves your way (airplane food is never going to be on my list of preferred pre-race meals), try to minimize them. Bring any special food items that you might not be able to buy or find away from home. Don’t fight jet-lag ... go to sleep and wake-up at local times as soon as possible.
If possible, be sure to check out the course conditions that you’ll be facing on race day. Make mental notes about sighting landmarks on the swim, transition area flow, any key places on the bike course like aid stations or technical sections, and finally check out a couple landmarks over the final mile or so of the run course.
Devise a mental plan of attack for the race.
You shouldn’t just arrive on race day hoping to go fast. Having a flexible plan full of process goals like “swim straight, and sight every 6 strokes”, or “drink one bottle of fluid every 30 minutes” will help you maintain focus on the event. Keep your attention on positive things that you can do, and I guarantee you’ll have a much better race!
The art of tapering requires you to find something useful to do while you end up with more time on your hands since you aren’t training as much. Catching up on some good movies, or reading some non-training related reading material is perfect. If you spend all of your time thinking about the race, you’ll be tired before you wake up on race morning! I often see people trying to fit in that last interval workout on Wednesday or Thursday before a big race, or doing a long workout within a couple days of the big event.
The final week is for your head. Just keep your body ready for action.
Whatever you’ve done in the past with good results is what you should stick with. If you can do this, and repeat your rituals with the same results, you’ll start each race a little more confident, knowing that what you’ve done in your taper is the right thing.
Good luck in the final races of your season!
Author Neal Henderson is an XTERRA PRO and the Coordinator of the Sport Science program at the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine. He teaches the XTERRA Swim Clinics with Raeleigh Tennant and Grant Holicky, and can be reached email@example.com
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