and taper time

So you know what your long term and short term goals for the season are. You’ve been putting in your base training, and you understand how to effectively include speedwork and bricks. I discussed these issues in my two previous articles, and hopefully you’ve read them.

Now you want to know how to apply all this hard work and perform well in your races. Everyone has his or her own strategy, and what works well for one person may not work for you. One of my best strategies is to stay out of the bar the night before a race. But I think that’s a good strategy for anyone!

In all seriousness, there are a number of factors that can affect your race day performance. Nerves. Lack of sleep. Fatigue. Stress. Improper diet. Working out too hard. Not working out hard enough. Too much time in the office and not enough time on the bike. Too many trips to the ice cream machine.

You name it; there is always something that can affect your performance. But there are a few strategies that can help you stay cool and do well. While I can’t guarantee that you will perform well at every race, I’ve found that the practices I’m going to discuss below have usually helped me and have never hurt my performance.

Step five: See it, believe it, achieve it.

I was an assistant counselor at the Pinecrest Swim Camp in Ft. Lauderdale in the summer of 1988, and every week all the counselors would get together in the auditorium so we could practice what is called Visualization. Simply, this involves relaxing, taking yourself to a meditative state, and seeing in your mind the race you are hoping to perform well in. Visualization is something that gets much easier with practice, just like everything else.

Visualization is pretty similar to meditation, but where meditation’s goal is to achieve a relaxed state with nothing on your mind (the Zen state of being, where everything just is), visualization’s goal is to take you to an island next to that Zen-like state. On that island, you watch a movie that is about you. You are the star, the director, and the audience. Ultimately, your goal is to become the movie.

Huh? What the heck am I talking about?

Ok. Here is the secret. Your mind can be tricked. Your mind, essentially, is not able to tell the difference between an imagined state of existence and a real state of existence. Basically, if you are able to achieve an extremely relaxed state, you can hypnotize yourself to believe the vision you give yourself. Then when you race, it will seem like you’ve done it all before.

How do you get to this ‘island?’ It’s not easy, but it’s not impossible either. First, you need to find a quiet, cool, comfortable place and lie down. A bed will work, but you might fall asleep, and that’s not what you want to do. A carpeted floor usually works nicely. Second, dim the lights. Third, relax.

Relaxing is the hard part. Because of the nature of our society, most people typically have all sorts of things going on in their mind. What do I have to do for work? What am I getting my girl for Valentine’s Day? When is my paper due? What’s going on with my new bike? Why are people such bad drivers? Holy crud, I’m gonna be thirty soon!! Ahhh!

Take a deep breath. Put it aside. Forget about all that. Focus. Concentrate on your breathing. Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe comfortably. Clear your mind of everything. It might help to focus on a point of light. It may help to count backwards from 100. It may help to listen to your breathing, or listen to the sound of one hand clapping. Find the strategy that works for you.

Once you are in a relaxed state of mind, put yourself in your happy place. If you saw Happy Gilmore with Adam Sandler, then you know what I’m talking about. I like the water, so I usually imagine myself on the shore of a small island. Find a place that makes you feel relaxed and put yourself there.

The vision…

Imagine there is a wide screen in front of you. You are on the screen. You have stepped outside yourself and can watch your actions. You are at the big race. You have put the training in. You are ready to go. You line up. Who is lined up next to you? It doesn’t matter. You can beat them. The gun goes off. You see yourself run into the water. You swim like a fish. You can see how strong you are. The other competitors slowly fade, but you continue. You exit the water. You run to your bike and put on your helmet and shoes. You are not even breathing hard. Everything is very easy. You mount your bike and start pedaling. You notice that you are no longer standing on the beach watching the vision. You have become the vision. You pedal faster. You feel your quads burning, but you have put the training in and it feels good. You speed by other competitors. They look at you in disbelief. They cannot understand how you have become so fast. You smile and continue. The transition arrives quicker than you could have imagined. You dismount and quickly put on your running shoes. You are out of the transition. You run fast enough to feel the wind cooling your skin. The crowd cheers your name. You see another competitor ahead of you. You increase your pace. Your abdominal muscles are tight, but you are strong. You pull alongside. You pass your competition. You are now in front. There is only you and the street. You increase your pace. The finish line is ahead. You run for it. There is nothing else. Just you. You cross the finish line. You win.

End of vision…

That’s how you get fast. Yes, you have to train hard. Yes, it can take hours and hours of practice. But ultimately, you have to convince yourself that you can do it. Self-doubt is a dangerous demon, and I’m no stranger to it. We can always tell ourselves that we’re not good enough. We don’t belong here. I don’t deserve this. But the truth is, if you have worked hard, you do deserve to do well. And if you can see yourself doing well, and believe that you can do well, you will do well. I don’t guarantee much, but I do guarantee that. Believe in yourself first, and everything else will fall into place.

Step six: Taper time.

Back to the physical stuff. A taper is a period of rest immediately before your goal race. A taper can be as short as one day or as long as two to three weeks, depending on how important or how long the race is. I have found, after years of experimenting with taper time, that for short races I only need two to three days of rest before the race. More than that and I tend to lose the benefit of the rest. However, I have a pretty quick metabolism and also recover from hard training sessions pretty quickly. I haven’t yet raced enough long distance to figure out my ideal taper time for LD, but when I do I’ll let you know what worked.

What you want to do during a taper is continue to exercise, but drop the total volume of training substantially. You also don’t want to do any intense speed sessions during this time. You can exercise the day before the race, as long as it is easy. The hardest thing you would want to do would be short accelerations of not more than 10-15 seconds just to remind your body of the feeling of speed. And I wouldn’t do more than 4 or 5 of these.

Strictly as an example, below are the two weeks of speedwork and LSD that I’ve already written about. The third week is an example of a short taper week that could follow these two weeks:

Week One

Monday – maintenance swim 3000 yards
Tuesday – running speedwork
2 mile warm up, 4 x 800 at 5k race pace with 1.5 minutes rest in between, 1 mile warm down
Wednesday – LSD 30 mile bike ride
Thursday – maintenance run 4 miles
Friday – swimming speedwork
800 warm up, 12 x 100 on tight interval, 500 warm down.
Saturday –
AM – bike speedwork. 20 minute spin, then 10 x 1 minute at 95% effort. 1 minute easy ride in between each. 20 minute warm down.
PM – run maintenance 4 miles
Sunday – sleep in

Week Two

Monday – LSD 7 mile run
Tuesday – swimming speedwork
600 warm up, 400 kick, 30 x 50, 1 all out, one kick, one drill, repeat 10 times. 300 swim down.
Wednesday –
AM – 20 mile maintenance ride
PM – run speedwork. 2 mile warm up. 8 x 400 at 5k race pace –5 seconds (if your 5k pace is 6:00 per mile, then your 400 split is 1:30 – 5 =1:25 per 400). 1.5 minute rest between each. 1 mile warm down.
Thursday – LSD swim 3500 yards
Friday – LSD 35 mile ride
Saturday – sleep or easy swim or run
Sunday –
AM – bike speedwork. Find a group ride and stay with people who are faster than you. This is aerobic speedwork.
PM – maintenance run 5 miles

Week Three – Taper Week

Monday – swimming speedwork
800 warm up, 16 x 100 freestyle, descend 1-3 (at 95% effort), hold 4, on :30 seconds rest, 400 swim down.
Tuesday – LSD 35 mile ride
Wednesday – run speedwork
2 mile warm up, 3 x 1 mile at 5k + 10 pace (if your 5k race pace is 6:00 per mile, run each mile at 6:05-6:15), 1 mile warm down.
Thursday –
AM easy swim 2500-3000 yds
PM optional 10-20 mile easy bike
Friday – easy run, 3-5 miles
Saturday – 15m bike easy or sleep
Sunday – goal race

Since you’ve put in the base training and speedwork, your body is not only completely ready for the race, but it can handle doing reasonably intense workouts up until only a few days before the goal race.

Of course, some people need more rest than others. As you get older, your body requires more recovery time between hard workouts. So for some people, it would not be a good idea to do a running speed session on Wednesday and then race on Sunday. On the other hand, I know people that will do a running speed session on Thursday evening and then race a 5K on Saturday morning. It all depends on your body type and the total overall shape that you are in. Listen to your body and back off if you need more rest than the other guy. The important thing is to do well on race day, not every day.

Step 6.5: Race day strategy.

The last important part of racing, besides racing itself, is your race day preparation. Are you one of those people that show up ten minutes before the gun goes off and run around like a maniac setting your gear up? And then you don’t do well and wonder why? Of course you’re not going to do well. You’re stressed and you didn’t get a good warm up in. And I hid your goggles.

Just kidding. I wouldn’t do that to you.

There are six simple solutions to race day preparation:

  • If at all possible, pick up your race packet the day or night before. Make sure your number/chip/cap is in there, and they are all correct. Pack your gear the night before. Include the most important stuff first. Helmet, suit, goggles, running shoes, biking shoes, bike, water bottle, race packet, extra tubes, bike pack. Everything else you DO NOT need. These are the absolute essentials. It’s not going to kill you if you forget your foot basin, but without a helmet, you ain’t racing.

  • Drive the bike course. Check the road conditions so you know what to expect. If you’re planning to get lost during the race, this is where it will happen.

  • Wake up early enough to have a relaxed snack/coffee/breakfast. Don’t hurry. The last thing you want to do is rush around, because rush = stress = poor blood flow = bad performance. Make sure you have all your gear. Go to the bathroom in your hotel room. Drink some water. Take a deep breath, remember your vision, and head to the race site.

  • Find your bike rack and reserve your spot. Spread your stuff out. Get a good warm up in. Remember your vision. I like to ride for 15-20 minutes, then swim a few minutes. Some people prefer to run as a warm up. Do what works for you.

  • Find your competition. Wish them the best of luck. If you don’t know who they are, introduce yourself to the people at your rack. Wish them the best of luck. Just because you’re competitive doesn’t mean you can’t be friendly. Remember your vision.

  • SHOW UP AT THE STARTING LINE WITH YOUR GOGGLES AND CAP ON TIME!!! You probably know someone who did everything perfect, then goofed around and missed the race start. If you don’t, then let me please introduce myself. I’ve missed the starts of a couple races in my life. Luckily, just not last year!

That’s really about it. If you follow this approach to your training and racing, you will have a long and happy career in triathlons. Use your head. Be smart. Don’t train when you are injured. Get enough rest. Have a good time. Learn to relax and enjoy yourself.

Coming soon: workouts.

Marty Gaal - January 2001