Race day isn’t just about a single day of performance.
Race day is a day that we hope reflects the days, weeks, months, and maybe even years of hard work and dedication we’ve put into preparing for that singular event. That is usually where the nerves start to come in. If you’ve invested so much mental and physical time and energy into ensuring that this single day goes absolutely perfectly, the last thing you want is to make a mistake that throws everything off kilter.
One of the biggest and most common mistakes an athlete can make leading into an event is continuing to train too hard in the final days leading into the race and starting the race already in a state of fatigue. In order to avoid fatigue on the start line, an athlete should taper before his or her focus event.
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What is a taper?
Tapering is where fitness and fatigue intersect in a way that leads to optimal performance.
Fitness is formed when we train really hard and build a foundation of training that benefits our event. In general, the more fitness we have the better we will do in an event. As we train hard to build fitness, however, we also accumulate fatigue.
If you have trained really hard, but are completely exhausted then you won’t be able to perform to your full potential. In order to minimize fatigue leading into a race, we must ease back our training so that we can recover and go into the race feeling fresh and not tired. That said, if we rest too long then we will lose fitness, but if we don’t rest enough then we will be tired.
Finding the perfect balance of rest and fitness is where we find peak performance. The way that we work to find this perfect balance is through tapering.
Tapering is the strategy that we use in order to maintain fitness while recovering and minimizing fatigue to create optimal performance. Every event is different and every athlete is different so that means every taper should be different as well. It may take a few attempts to find the perfect taper that works for you. Here are some concepts to help you start planning your perfect taper.
How do you taper?
Duration: Most tapers will start 4-28 days out from your main event (with 1-2 weeks being the most common duration). This time frame has been shown to allow an athlete to effectively shed fatigue across time without having to cease training entirely.
Intensity: A critical element of all tapers is to maintain intensity in your training routine. While volume decreases, intensity should remain present in your training plan in order to maintain race specific fitness. Continue to do intervals at the same wattages or heart rates as you normally would, but cut down the duration of the intervals, the numbers of sets completed, and add more rest in between.
Volume: Throughout your taper you will cut down your training volume to 60-90 percent of what you normally do. Don’t make the mistake of simply taking more days off and training longer on the days you do train. Instead try to decrease training by 60-90 percent while decreasing frequency of training by only 30-50 percent.
Common mistakes with tapering
Doing too much: The most common mistake athletes make when tapering is still training too hard. The main reason that athletes train too hard during a taper is a lack of confidence in their abilities. It’s important to remember that there is very little you can do to improve your fitness within two weeks of a race, anyways, so you might as well rest and recovery. Too many athletes feel the need to ‘test’ their legs.
Tapering too often: Now a days there are all kind of races available to athletes, meaning that people are lining up quite frequently. If you attempt to taper too frequently then you do risk losing fitness over time. Try to only taper for events that are 8-12 weeks apart from each other so that you have time to build fitness in between.
Not fueling properly: When you taper you will be dropping the volume of your training, which may mean that you need less calories than usual to meet your daily demands. It doesn’t mean, however, that you should use this time to try to drop weight. Tapering is a time that you should be emphasizing nutrition and making sure that you have all of the nutrients and fuel that your body will need on race day. In most cases, you actually want to focus on filling up your glycogen stores to maximum capacity for race day.
Filling the time: You may find that as you decrease the volume during your taper, you discover you have more time in your day-to-day life. Resist the urge to fill every minute of this time. Remember, you are supposed to be recovering. Instead of taking on extra opportunities or outings try to use the time that you would normally be training with recovery modalities such as stretching, napping, or meal prepping.
Once you hit the taper, you should be excited! The hard work is done. Now you are just crossing your t’s and dotting your i’s as you start to imagine how sweet it will be to achieve your goals. As you dream big about the race ahead, remember that a perfectly executed taper will often allow for a performance improvement of approximately three percent.
Mujika, Inigo, and Sabino Padilla. “Scientific Bases for Precompetition Tapering Strategies.” Med. Sci. Sports Exercise, vol. 35, no. 7, 2003, pp. 1182–1187., https://doi.org/http://robin.candau.free.fr/Mujika_Padilla.pdf.