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The Importance of a Training Taper Week

Taper Week is the week that all athletes say that they dream about, the week they can’t wait for, but in reality, it is probably the most mentally tough week that we have to endure. Yes, I used the word endure to describe how we deal with this week of lower activity and recovery before a big event. With a number of races opening up again, now is a good time to chat about this week that we all have a love/hate relationship with.

First let’s discuss why taper weeks are necessary. It is fairly obvious, let’s be honest. We have been training hard for our goal event. We are in fantastic shape but in order to be in peak condition on race day, we need to allow recovery. We need to let the body catch up with it’s admin. There is micro-muscle damage that needs to be patched up and our fuel tanks need to be replenished and brimmed for race day. Although we could be in the shape of our lives going into the final week before race day, we probably don’t feel it. We are more than likely feeling a bit second-hand and very weary after the last few weeks of our build-up. A taper week will take care of all of that and allow the great form to show.

I don’t think we need to over-explain the need for the taper week but, what definitely needs some discussion is what we do in a taper week and what sort of training, if any, we should be doing in this important week. A big mistake that amateur athletes make that their professional counterparts have learned to avoid, is to take the taper week too easy. Yes, the hard work has been done and we need to recover. Any significant training sessions we could do in this week will only show real benefit after the race and they will only delay our recovery to a point that is too late for our goal event. So, what should we do in our taper week if not just easy, recovery sessions?

To answer that question, let’s look at what we are trying to achieve with this week. The obvious is the recovery and refuelling. For that we need to cut back on our training volume significantly. As much as 50% of what we normally do. The second result we want out of this week is to be sharp and ready to go when the start gun fires. We definitely don’t want to be sluggish and lethargic on the start line. Remember, we have been consistently putting in long, hard hours of training in the weeks and possibly months leading up to this week. To suddenly cut back drastically on both volume and intensity would be quite a shock to the system. Our bodies have become used to, and adapted, that routine. As a result, we need to keep the engine firing and incorporate some interval training into our taper week schedule. In comparison to the sessions that we have been doing, these will be short and the recovery periods long. The overall volume of the work will also be significantly less than what we have become accustomed to, so our bodies will deal with these sessions easily as far as recovery goes. Thus, we won’t be adding anything to the accumulated fatigue that we are trying to clear with the taper week. What these sessions will do however, is keep our bodies supple and sharp. Maintaining the tension in the muscles and the range of motion in the joints so that we are ready to perform at our optimum right from the start of our race.

For triathletes this means one light, interval session for the bike and run. Paces and effort levels up to what we expect at the event that we are tapering for with double the length of the interval as recovery periods. Overall volume of the intervals should be less than half of what we would do in a similar session during a normal training week. Because the swim is a lot less invasive than the other two disciplines, all our swims in the taper week can consist of fairly normal, interval training. All we do is increase the recovery times to what we were doing the previous week and possibly add in some faster than race pace swimming, to simulate the start pace of the race. We can also add in more race-specific drills like head up swimming and deep water starting.

Everything else in our taper week should be as consistent with what we have been doing as possible. We want to keep our sleep routine similar. Sleep is a recovery secret weapon, so we are hoping that we’re getting enough of this precious commodity all the time. During the taper week we can try to get a bit more as we are probably not having to get going with our first session of the day as early as normal but, we don’t want to become groggy. We must also remember that, because we are training less this week, we will not be falling into bed exhausted as we probably were in previous weeks. We could possibly pay back some deficit in the first few days of the week but then it is a good idea to continue the rest of the week as normal. It is also an excellent idea to get comfortable with the time that you will have to rise on race day if that is going to be something out of the ordinary from our usual schedule. Doing our first session of the day at the race start time is also a small detail that will help the body to be ready to go on the big day.

Nutrition is another important detail to focus on in taper week. Many amateur athletes start feeling and acting like pros in taper week. Especially if it involves travelling to the race venue early and rubbing shoulders with other competitors. Now is not the time to make any changes, good or bad, to our diets. We don’t want to start eating like a professional athlete the week before the race, when we haven’t done it for the last ten to twelve. The other side of this coin are those of us who think we may have earned some rest and relaxation after all the hard work and discipline and start rewarding ourselves with the tasty goodies that we have been denied. If we really must, that can come after race day. Finish the job and then get the rewards. That said, the week after the race is also not a good time for a ‘cheat week’ but we’ll discuss that in the ‘Race Recovery Week’.

So, we are continuing to eat healthy as we have done throughout our training build-up. What we also need to remember is that we are doing around half the volume that we were used to this week. That means less calories burned. Remember the all-important power-to-weight ratio? Without being paranoid, we need to ease back on the volume of our food intake as we have done with our training. This doesn’t mean a 50% reduction to match our training, but we do need to be sensible about our quantities. Remember that our bodies are still busy catching up on the repairs from the previous block of training and we are also brimming our fuel tanks for race day. Starving ourselves now is going to nothing but harm but we certainly don’t want to be stuffing our faces. The ‘carbo-loading’ myth has been busted a long time ago.

Another important component of taper and race week preparation is getting our equipment prepared and ready. This is also an excellent activity that we can utilise to burn off some of the extra time that we find ourselves with this week. If we don’t service our own bicycle, this needs to be done right at the beginning of the week so that there is ample time to deal with any unexpected repairs or replacements that may arise. We also want to ride it in training, after the service so make sure everything is in order and as we expect. It is a great idea to do the week’s one interval session on the bike, on the race ready machine.

The same goes for race clothing and racing running shoes. All should be worn in one training session during taper week, leaving enough time to wash and clean them before packing them in our race bags, ready for the day. Everything that can be packed should be at least two days out. This gives us peace of mind that we have everything we need and that it is all in perfect, working order. When packing we should run through everything necessary for each discipline and pack it as soon as we have checked it off. It is essential to have a ‘Race Day Checklist’. No matter how experienced we are and how many times we race, there is always a chance that we forget something and don’t forget the ‘what if’ stuff as well. We always need to be prepared for any eventuality.

Taper weeks happen at the end of a big and escalating period of training, which took us to our endurance limits and probably a little beyond. We therefore know that we need this week to recover and prepare our bodies for race day but now let’s deal with what we started this discussion with, the fact that taper weeks can be something that we need to ‘endure’. Physically we have gotten used to the day in and day out of our preparation, but it has become a psychological normal as well. Changing of any routine is disruptive, even when it is essential and beneficial. We have become used to feeling a certain way. Waking up at a specific time and falling asleep exhausted. There is also the tendency for us to start becoming anxious about putting on weight or losing fitness. It is not uncommon to start checking the scale constantly or performing some impromptu tests during our training sessions to check that we are still ‘on form’. None of which is conducive to being a happy, healthy athlete on race morning. This is something that all athletes go through, amateur and professional. Probably not the thing on the top of our ‘Do like a Pro’ list.

The key to getting through taper week without having lost the plot is to have our schedule locked in. Right down to the smallest detail. Yes, we always have our training plan for every other week of the year but in taper week, it is a good idea to plan in a little more detail. To know what we are doing and when we are doing it will help to keep our eyes on the prize and stop all the silly worries from getting too much airtime. Diarise when we are going to train, eat and sleep. Add in travelling if that is required for our race. Going from one ‘appointment’ to the next will keep our minds engaged with what we are doing, rather than what we are not.

It is even a good idea to plan our race-day schedule. When we will wake. When and what we will eat for breakfast and when we will depart for the race venue. Once there, we should plan the order that we do things like racking bikes, setting up our transition etc. Timing when we will start our warm up and what we are going to do. What time will we need to go to the start line? All of these details may seem unnecessarily pedantic, but it is more a mental necessity than a physical one. Keeping our minds on what we are doing, but at the same time helping to keep us as calm as possible by eliminating as many variables from the week as we can.

We definitely want to push the scale way under the bed and leave it there while keeping the training to the easy stuff and light intervals that we have planned. Have confidence that we have done the work and are great shape and that we are only getting better as our bodies recover through the week. The race on the weekend will be the only test we need to confirm that.

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