Tips for Tapers
How many successful races are thrown away with terrible tapers?
Proper tapering is all about experience and personalisation. See, a taper, in theory, has a conical profile. If workload occupies the volume, we move through the biggest diameter of the circle about a month from competition. Then we look to incrementally bring it down, or ‘coning it up’ as the case may be. We gradually drop our effort to reserve and prepare for race day. The tip of the cone points to an optimal target race. It’s nice and neat. I’m afraid that’s just not how the body works.
‘Workload’ is a multifaceted concept involving distance, effort, stress, speed and more, with our individual ‘cones’ varying in size and shape. Some athlete’s systems need to be regularly stimulated to induce recovery. Some need complete rest and relaxation. And some athletes? Well, they don’t need a taper at all. Unlucky for some. The most successful tapers I have seen (and done) are ones when there has been absolute trust between the athlete and the coach. Some of the methods, my sports scientist background would question, (my legs have questioned them a fair amount too), but the crux of it is – that athlete trust in a coached taper program minimises the anxiety that changing training strategy induces. Worrying caused by a vigorous taper jeopardises its physiological benefits. After all, the high echelons of racing are often not a body game but a head game, and we don’t spend enough time considering the implications of that.
So how do we approach a taper that balances the need for mental stability and confidence to race with the physical recovery required to perform? Good coaching.
Good coaches recognise the mind as the weapon that it is and prioritise the need for it to be fresh, resilient and confident on the start line. Doubts and fears, the foreign sensations caused by resting, increased thinking time – they are variables that a taper introduces, and these insecurities will nullify physical preparation come race day. If an athlete equates rest with laziness, or with feeling fat, or de-conditioning, then the best-devised taper in the world will not rescue the damage that can be inflicted to their mindset. Conversely, if an athlete feels tired, overworked and not rested coming into a race, that too can cause a lack of confidence, perhaps a lack of motivation and can also destroy performance.
This is where good coaching shines in the face of scientific data. A good coach knows when to disguise a taper – to use light training to dissipate the pressure of performance that a lengthy, severe taper evokes. Likewise, they understand the athletes that feel they need to taper hard and can similarly streamline training without compromising fitness. This stuff doesn’t come on a universal plan or through online coaching – it is a skill of an excellent coach. It is personal, intricate and evolving.
Aside from choosing a good, experienced coach, there are ways to help maximise your preferred method of taper or compliment your coaches one. Anything that can help stabilise the increasing nerves and doubts that descend on athletes of every level during taper time will enhance their performance.
Sleep is always good. Some say you can sleep too much, but I am yet to ever confirm that hypothesis. Sleep is the ultimate recovery. It not only rests the body but also gives an overanxious mind a timeout. As sessions are cut down in race week, sleep is the best thing to put in their place.
Everybody feels lazy and fat if they don’t train. The bigger your workload, the more the drop-off and the heightened sense of ‘bleurgh’ that is felt. To add to that, carbohydrate not burned is stored in the body and holds water with it, which makes you feel heavier than you are. Salt dosing is even worse. Before Kona, I know of one champion who weighed in 3kg heavier on race day than a few days before. I feel I may be underselling the taper here, somewhat! Obviously, this athlete is not fat. She was rested, prepared and was ready to burn available energy. Cut out junk, eat more nutrients and embrace your body’s preparation for effort. Nobody gets fat in a week (no matter what your mind tells you) and at 20km into the marathon – that’s when you’re going to be thankful you had those big stores of easy energy to harness on the bike.
Don’t over analyse how your body feels in taper week. Some feel good, but I regularly feel terrible. Hyper-compensation is a real thing, and as your body strengthens and repairs you can feel dire.
It doesn’t matter one iota how you feel – three days before race day, two days before race day, the day before race day. Only race day matters so don’t even think about it.
Aerobic work is the basis of endurance. The heart rate needs to rise to pump blood around the muscles to remove waste. One of my old swim coaches used to shout ‘140’ at us during warm ups for competitions as we cruised along nonchalantly. His theory – you need blood pumped to remove yesterday’s workout. It’s ‘active recovery’. I still warm up briskly to this day. Easy, longer sessions should pad the time available for training up to race day. After flying it is important to get the body moving as soon as possible to dissipate stiff legs and flying swell.
Sometimes you are reaching so hard for a taper that when it comes, you forget that it isn’t a complete week off. There should be hard elements in a taper – some fast work, some specific sessions. They wouldn’t faze someone in normal training, but they can seem mountainous if you were banking on an easy jog or a plod swim. A taper is the cherry on top of the training, but you still have to work for that cherry. It might be more important than some of your hardest of weeks.
Nerves build in the taper period, and questions and insecurities often rear their ugly heads. Limit your race analysis to training. Consider race execution, the course, tactics and nutrition during the warm up or warm down of your sessions but limit thinking about it to then. Overthinking is often the cause of anxiety – worrying about the external factors to performance is not only pointless but can also be destructive. A taper is a time for mental discipline of the highest order, see it as a new challenge to conquer and perfect for race success.
Hydration and electrolytes
Drink, drink, drink. You can’t really stay hydrated enough before endurance events, so always have a bottle beside you. It is especially important if you are travelling to a race. I drink a concentrated electrolyte drink on the plane as well (designed for patients with diarrhoea). Flying can be very unhealthy. Don’t get me started…
I am sure if we could all steer clear of germs all the time we would. I would be an idiot to write ‘keep away from germs’ – it is impossible. I have tried it. Air travel, work, group gatherings – the stuff of nightmares. Be a little more aware in taper week as you are fit, and very fit people can sometimes have compromised immune systems. Fist pumps over handshakes, lots of hand-wash and lots of vitamins. Two weeks before a really important race might mean it is fair to opt out from big group meetings. Some think it quite rude to skip a big family dinner for fear of contamination. I think it is far ruder to attend one with a virus and spread it around #justsaying. I am only talking about target competitions. Otherwise, you will duly become a hermit. Look at my husband and me. Rarely ill, perform well, definite hermits.
Use one of your missed sessions to spend time planning your race provisions. A lot of stress in taper week results from last minute considerations and rushed visits into and out of the expo to find your nutrition, lubricant, or safety pins. The expo is one of the most stressful environments you can be in before race day. It is a pit of nerves, gossip and predictions. If you can avoid it don’t go. If you must go, don’t talk. Don’t let anyone else’s insecurities or worries mess with your headspace.
We race to improve ourselves, to challenge our capabilities and to test our resolve. Race day is a superb opportunity to excel, but it is also important to remember that there are many race days available. Keep everything in perspective. Clear motive and rational thought serve very well on race day.
We don’t know how much anxiety detriments performance, nor how many athletes it affects. It’s a considerable percentage. I know athletes more talented than me that never master the art of BMT (big match temperament). It too is a skill – use your taper week to hone it. Being cool under pressure is one of the most difficult skills an athlete can acquire, but it can define a race, a career, a personality, and a life. That’s worth some thought.