The Do’s and Dont’s of Half-Ironman Tapering
At this stage of preparation, with the months of hard work behind you and a mere 2 weeks until the big day, you should be at your fittest. You’ve done the late night track sessions, given up a social life for 5am bike rides, and rushed to the pool after work to get a swim in. Well Done! There’s not a lot more you can do to improve your fitness. But how do you handle race week so that you are feeling fantastic and raring to go on race day? Too much rest could see you feeling flat, lethargic and unmotivated, while too much training will not give your body a chance to freshen up. The taper is a period of reduced training load designed for your body to rest and repair while allowing the body’s natural physiological adoptions occur. You may have heard some athletes talk about “soaking up” all the hard work- this is what they are referring to.
When tapering after a long period of consistent training, our body’s transition from “fight” mode (training) into “heal” mode (tapering); the cardiovascular and muscular systems that are constantly being stressed for greater adaptation start to wind down and enter a state of deep rest. The hormonal balance in your body also changes as the hormones released to sustain the high levels of physical exertion during training drops, while the level of “restorative” hormones increases. Your muscles will also start to “gum up” as they lay down healing connective tissue. This is why it is important to keep moving and the reason that we don’t take extended periods totally off during a taper. Essentially, we want to do as little as possible (allowing for maximum rest) while still keeping the systems switched on and just ticking over in the background.
These changes translate to a sensation of fatigue and lethargy in the body that is often experienced in the 1st few days of your taper. Your body will feel sluggish as you have been used to a very high rate of oxygenation and movement of fluids. Your metabolism will be out of whack too because the amount of energy you are used to expending drops. Your digestion will feel a little off, your head foggy, and you feel all the little aches and pains that the season’s training brings with it. Knowing why it’s happening and expecting these changes to take place is important because it will help you stay cool and not freak out. In fact, what would be cause for concern would be if you didn’t feel these things at all!
1. Keep moving and stay loose. As a rule, cut down first on intensity (the most damaging), then volume and lastly, on training frequency. Tapering is not a period of complete rest. 10 days of doing nothing will see you very well rested but also feeling flat, lethargic and possibly carrying a few extra kilos.
Once you get to race week, it’s a matter of getting plenty of rest but not letting your systems shut down entirely. Maintain the same frequency as your regular weekly training cycle to keep the engine purring. Almost all sessions are done at the easy effort level for 50 – 30 mins in duration – with the only exception being a longer and very easy 90 min bike ride in the 1st half of the week.
Throw in a few short efforts in each of the disciplines to keep your muscles firing and familiar with the effort on race day. Short 5 min race pace efforts work well at the start of the week, while harder 30 – 90 sec bursts are good to fire up the legs/ arms towards the end of taper week. Keep everything else easy. You want to perform the sessions hard enough just to tease out the right physiological response to keep that system ticking over.
All the training sessions that you put in the last week should leave you hungry to do more. In a sense, you’re teasing your body to build energy levels up before the full race day effort. Do not hammer yourself on any sessions during this time to “test your fitness”. Trust in the many hours that you have already put in.
2. Travel days are stressful enough so you can take this day completely off or just strap on the shoes for a 20 min easy run after settling in- just to loosen up the legs.
3. Adjust the size of your meals to account for the decreased activity levels. ) Watch what you eat during taper because your training load (and the subsequent calorific replacement rate) is significantly reduced. You won’t get away with stuffing your face after a short session, even though, out of habit, you may feel like it.
4. Try to keep taper week free of stressful occurrences. Make sure everything is settled on the work and family front early. Mentally (and physically) you want to be in a relaxed place so that you can spend time rehearsing your race strategy and nutrition plan. Visualise different sections of the race and remind yourself of what to expect and how you want to be feeling and how you are going to react, in terms of pacing, motivation and nutrition, at each of these ‘check points’.
5. The fitter you are, the more susceptible you are to common bugs, colds and flus and the more easily we get sick (I’ll explain why in another article). Diet – wise, top up on loads fresh and colourful fruit and veg to make sure you’re getting the vitamins and anti-oxidants required to keep our immunity high. A daily multi-vit is also a good idea.
1. Don’t plan your family vacation before your race. A few relaxing days by the beach is fine, but a 2 week hiking tour in New Zealand/ Europe/ Canada/ USA is not a good idea.
2. Avoid taking a total day off the day before the race. If you feel like you need it, two days out is better. Do a little touch in each discipline the day before, just to get the engine warmed up.
3. Mental fatigue from the Ironman hype: While the Ironman “circus” is part of the experience, it doesn’t mean that you have to be breathing triathlon 24/7 for the entire week before the race. Being on your feet, swapping stories about racing and training, considering late equipment changes from the expo sale, etc etc… all that is going to zapp your energy big time.
4. Stay low-key – I recommend getting to the race venue as late as possible so that you have a limited time at to hang out at the Athlete Village. Limit yourself to one pass – buy all the souvenirs/ supplies you want, take photos of that new bike, go hassle some Pros, and catch up with all your friends on their training and racing. Then leave it, get out of there and avoid going back. Booking your accommodation a few miles away from the race area helps too.
In conclusion, stay cool and level-headed and move smoothly through any last minute hiccups that you may encounter. All training sessions need to be conservative and should not incur any muscle damage/ fatigue at all. Save your energy, trust in your training and mentally prepare to ‘go there’ on race day.
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