Your two key weeks are spent building up to and coming down from a big race. This can make or break your season, says Cyberco@ch Donovan van Gelder.
At this strange time that we find ourselves in, racing seems a distant memory or a speck on the future horizon. Most of us are focusing on training goals and trying
to keep or get ourselves into the best possible shape for the moment when the next event is announced. Then the more focused work will begin as we build towards the specific requirements of our goal event. There are many critical training weeks when building up to a big event. Most involve high-quality or -quantity training. Two, however, are low in both of those commodities, but are just as critical. One, to your race performance and the other, to the overall success and longevity of your season.
First up, the Taper Week
This is the week we all look forward to when we are heavy with physical and mental fatigue during our peak training weeks. However, once we reach the taper, it is, for most, the worst week of the whole build-up. Paranoia starts to set in. We feel like we are losing fitness by the minute and we think that we gain another kilogram with every one of those taper minutes that pass.
The reality is that all triathletes are creatures of habit and routine. We wouldn’t be able to do all our training successfully, in and around our ‘normal lives’, without a well-planned structure.
The longer we hold that routine, the more we become used to it and the less
comfortable we feel when it changes.
We obviously need to taper for our main goal event, and the longer and more
successful your training has been, the longer you can taper. The goal of the
taper is to allow the body to catch up and repair the last bit of micro-muscle
damage that we inflicted and to build our reserves for the big day.
Fear 1: Are we losing fitness?
No, you are improving. Your body has been in deficit as you have approached the final week before the race. It will probably be a day or two behind the training that you have done, going into your taper. Remember, there is no improvement without recovery. So during at least the first two or three days of your taper, your body will be
recovering and adapting to the last key workouts that you did. At the end of that
recovery, you will be better than you were on the day the taper began. That
leaves only two or three additional days before the race, during which you are
recharging and refuelling. Again, that will be an improvement on your physical state on the day that the taper began, when you would have been depleted and fatigued.
Our bodies get used to feeling weary.
With the exception of those who have either exceeded their limits and overdone
things or underdone the recovery, this is acceptable. We very rarely allow the
body full recovery during a big block of training, except until we reach the taper
week. So how we start feeling after three or four days of the taper is strange. It
doesn’t feel right because it is not what we are used to. That sensation is of en
interpreted as something being wrong.
However, that is not the case.
The taper week is not only about resting. A good taper will severely cut back on volume but will still include a few quality efforts. These keep the body ‘awake’ or ‘tuned in’, and maintain muscle tone and tension. The rest of the taper week consists of light training. This helps to speed up the recovery process by continuing the circulation of nutrients through the muscles and aids in the flushing and removal of metabolic waste products. Light training also limits the tightening and shortening of muscles
that can result from complete inactivity.
We don’t want to spend the first few minutes of our big race easing stiff muscles into activity. A sudden start to the race can even result in damage to an overly rested body.
I suggest a full day off on the first day of the taper, just to reset after the last block
of training. Then something every day except for the second-last day before the
race, when we rest again. The number of sessions and the duration of training
will be determined by your level and your training build-up. Naturally, professional
athletes will do more than those whose goal is making the cut-off. That does not
mean either of their goals is less worthy of accolades, but we all have to train
according to our background.
The day before the race is aimed at loosening up after the second rest day.
Stick to light activity that primes the body to go when the start gun fires. It
is also useful in burning off some of the nervous energy that will accrue when
spending time around the race village.
Fear 2: Are we gaining weight?
Yes. Didn’t expect that, did you? It is not bad and it is not significant. It will also be to your advantage. During our last big block of training, we were generally operating in deficit. If you monitor your weight every morning, there will be days when you wake
up still slightly dehydrated and your ‘fuel tank’ is probably not completely topped up. So your scale will underread.
During the taper your training volume will decrease significantly so your body will be able to ‘catch up’ with hydration and refuelling. We need that for a big day at the races. Trust me on this, though – it is going to take a concerted effort at the buffet and you’d have to be a complete sloth for the rest of the week to put on any fat. In fact,
your body has got used to being lean and mean throughout your training build-up. It will try to stay that way until you convince it otherwise and it will take a lot more than a week to do that.
Do's and Don'ts for Taper Week
DO AIM FOR GOOD QUALITY SLEEP but avoid changing your sleep routine
too much. We want to keep things as normal as possible, especially because the
race will more than likely start really early, a similar time to when you were waking
up to train.
DO MAINTAIN YOUR ROUTINE. I suggest still training in your usual training
time slots. These will most probably be shorter and/or less intense, but you lessen
the mental impact of the taper if your week is similar to the ones before.
DON’T OVEREAT. Yes, we have established that it would be impossible to
change our body composition in the final week, but your kilojoule demands are
much lower than usual this week. The old-fashioned carbo-loading theory has been
solidly disproved, so there is no need to stuff yourself at every mealtime this week.
It will only upset your stomach and make you feel bloated. Eat normally, but pay
attention to portion sizes and take into account the difference in training volume.
DO AVOID CROWDS. You will have more time on your hands but don’t spend
this by going to the mall, sitting in coffee shops and so forth. Our bodies are still
repairing the damage we have inflicted in our training and are vulnerable to bugs
carried by inconsiderate people who insist on going out when they are ill. If you have
to mingle in your day-to-day life, run a mile if anyone so much as sniffs near you.
DO GIVE YOURSELF A FEW DAYS AT THE RACE VENUE if you are travelling
there, but do not overdo it. Spend enough time to do the essentials and relax in
your surroundings but not so much that you get bored and look for things to do, like
training more. It is not great for your nerves to be around all the hyped-up athletes
for too long either.
DON’T GO NEAR THE SCALE. You don’t need that messing with your head in
race week. Rather look in the mirror. You will see that you are just as lean and cut as
you were the day before the taper started.
The Week after the Race
You will be tired and probably a bit stiff and sore, but it is also common to feel a bit down. You have been working tirelessly towards a big goal. This has given your days purpose over and above your ‘normal life’. Suddenly that stimulus is gone. We shall assume that everything went well and you achieved your goal. That day will have been an emotional rollercoaster, with many highlights and low points. A ‘come-down’ after a high like that is perfectly normal.
During the training and racing detox, it is common for athletes to have a week off. You
certainly deserve it but now you have had two weeks of light training and the chances are your routine is well and truly disrupted. After two weeks you may battle to get up when the alarm clock goes off at 4am. It may become easy to justify skipping a session because you have earned the downtime and there is nothing pressing you to get out there. Two weeks become three and then four, and suddenly you realise you have lost a lot of that hard-earned conditioning and the hill to get back to racing shape has become a mountain. There is only really one solution to this and that is to get
the training going again as soon as possible.
Do's and Don'ts for the Week After
DON’T SKIP THE AWARDS BANQUET. It is important to attend it even if you
are not a prizewinner. Few things are more motivating than seeing super-fit people
celebrate their success. It will blow oxygen on your training fire again. Remember, even
though you may never contend for a podium position, the award ceremony is also
celebrating your achievement. Everyone there has achieved something.
DO USE THE REST DAY AFTER THE RACE TO ANALYSE YOUR
PERFORMANCE. What went right and what didn’t? Then decide what you did in
training that resulted in the rights and where it fell short. Come up with solutions.
DO PLAN MORE GOALS. Pick something long-term with a time frame of six
months or beyond. Then set some intermediate goals, shorter events that target areas
you need to improve on. The first of these should be within the next four weeks.
DON’T STOP TRAINING! A day off is a must for most; some may need two. But
unless you have injured yourself or fallen ill, you should do a light training session three
days after your race. It should be very low-key, relaxed and gentle, but it will be more
beneficial to your recovery than another complete day off. Get the muscles working
and the blood circulating. Then do another session the next day and one after that and
before you know it, you are not thinking twice when the alarm clock goes off. This may
take some willpower and self-discipline at first, but this is who you are, is it not? You
have just achieved something exceptional. Getting yourself to go for an easy hour on
the bike is nothing compared to that.
DO TAKE THE TIME TO CONGRATULATE YOURSELF. We are driven, disciplined individuals. Most ‘normal people’ will never understand how or why we do the things we do. The flaw in our personality type is that we also tend to be hypercritical. We devote time to analysing our race and our training, and finding things we need to improve on, but it is even more important to give ourselves that metaphorical pat on the back and acknowledge that we did good work. We climbed the mountain and successfully planted our flag at the top. Celebrate the attainment of one goal before you start reaching for the next. Onwards!