The three weeks out from Ironman, 70.3 or long course triathlon is a very tricky few week to navigate. Regardless of whether you are supremely fit, feeling strong and ready to race or you’ve just had (helped have) a baby, struggling with ITB syndrome and the flu …the next three weeks can impact your race and goals by minutes and even hours.
I have watched those supremely fit and strong athletes – dropping their buddies on training rides and smashing their off the bike runs – crumble to walking and crying the last ten kilometres. And those same folks with ITB syndrome, the flu and a new baby race faster than they ever thought possible and break PB’s. It’s all in the taper.
For most, the taper should start four weeks out for Ironman and three weeks out for long course – plus or minus a week depending on your:
All of these factors need to be considered – in this order. Note that age and fatigue levels are far more important than fitness and training when it comes to your taper. Think about these factors and with your coach if applicable work out the best taper duration for your particular circumstances.
Once you have the taper period you believe is best for you it is time to complete the process – by adding another week to your taper! A bigger one is always better. Keep in mind the ‘official’ taper starts after your longest week.
Having said that, note carefully that a taper is not all about massages and spa’s. Some of your best training is done inside your taper. The first week, or even two, of the taper you should still be doing at least two and possibly four ‘breakthrough sessions’. Joe Fiels talks about breakthrough sessions in all of his many books. The key however to training hard during your taper is in the recovery.
These tougher breakthrough sessions are possible in the first week or two of your taper but should be avoided at all costs in the last few weeks.
The aim during the taper is to ensure full recovery after every session. The saying “there is no such thing as over-training, just under recovery” holds especially true during the taper. If you are not fully recovered then skip a session or do the session at a much easier intensity or reduced duration.
It is a good idea to wear and use your race kit often during the taper. This includes nutrition. As much as possible you want to teach your body to consume gels or water at the same rate you plan to do so during the race. Even a one hour run should be in race suite and shoes. Taking a gel or two early in the run will help get ready to race. The gels will also assist with recovery, but keep in mind that these count to your total daily calorie count.
These last few weeks are all about giving back to your body. Over the past few months you have asked a lot of your body. You have trained when you were tired. You have woken early when your body wanted/needed sleep. It is now time to give back to your body. The science shows the actual training is not what makes you fitter, but rather the recovery which is where the growth and fitness gains occur.
Sleep, water and nutrition in that order remain the pillars of recovery. Other components such as massage, mobility and stretching, compression, etc will aid recovery but to a far lesser extent than the three pillars.
Try and go to bed an hour earlier, keeping in mind that pre midnight sleep is more powerful than extra morning sleep. Start drinking more at the beginning of your taper, not just the days before the race. Intracellular hydration (hydrated cells in your muscles) takes longer to achieve than extracellular hydration (water in your bloodstream). The later will happen in a few days, but will generally mean you will go to the loo more often. The valuable intracellular hydration takes several weeks and you will need to increase your electrolytes at the same time especially magnesium.
When it comes to nutrition the good word is to not try anything new. Eat a good variety of nutrient rich foods for the entire taper period. Keep an eye on extra calories – your diet has possibly adjusted to the higher calorie demands of you training, as your training decreases during the taper be careful to reduce your calorie intake inline.
Training is still necessary and you do need to keep your routine ‘roughly’ the same. If you swim, bike and run three times each per week you should stick to ‘roughly’ this plan. However reduce the effort and the duration of the whole session. Within the session you can still do race pace or even above race pace efforts but just keep them to a few minutes and then easy intensity for double the effort duration. So, a sixty minute run may be 20mins easy warm up then 4x 2min at 10k race pace/4min easy jog, then 15minute easy jog warm down.
After every training session the aim is to fully recover from the session before starting the next. In the first few weeks of the taper this will not be entirely possible. However with two weeks to go the full recovery between sessions is a must. If this means missing or postponing a session be clever and do just that.
As the taper continues you may feel stronger. Resist the urge to use that strength to test yourself. Now is not the time to race your buddies or go for a Strava crown to your coffee shop. Keep that energy bottled up within …for now.
Just as likely you may feel like crap as your taper continues. Your muscles may ache, even though you haven’t trained for two days. You may even get a head cold or a little flu-like symptoms. This crappy feeling is often felt by athletes during the taper. There are a number of theories but no real answers. The gist of the story is simply your body not being used to the rest or trying to adjust to the new regime. Importantly, don’t panic, go about your routine as best you can. An afternoon nap or better yet, a nap in our Normatec Boots will work wonders.
Many athletes will reduce or stop caffeine in the last ten days or so before the race. The idea is that when you use caffeine gels, drinks or tablets in the race they will have a bigger effect or boost. The jury is out on the value of this practice. Personally I reduce my coffee to one per day for a few days then go a few days without coffee (when I can), then I will reintroduce one coffee the day or two before the race.
There are many other one percenters out there. Many are sold as game changers. Learn to identify the one percenters and keep them in perspective. I have seen people change their diet completely because goji berries will make you race faster; some have purchased the lightest fastest tyres on earth; such-n-such a gel has more of this so I will change the gel; mates have slept in a high altitude chamber for the week before; and there are many, many super products out there. Just keep in mind that all your training, those big bike rides and long runs were done on your normal shoes, with normal sox, and your normal drink.
If you have any questions please ask in the comments below.