Months of training have culminated to this. You’ve worked hard, darn it, and now you’re ready for a little R & R, that taper period (reduced training load) before your big race.
Many people rely on the conventional wisdom that a week of taking it easy with light workouts and a rest day or two the week before should get you into fighting shape when that weekend event rolls around. But is it really that simple? Not really, otherwise, we’d be PR-ing all over the place.
So what’s the secret? Because we’re all individuals, with individualized training methods and different bodies capable of different workloads, we’ve got to take the time to listen to ourselves – rather than follow some clipping out of a magazine.
That said, athletes training for an endurance event (i.e. the Lake Placid Ironman on Sunday, or the Birkie next February) should take a close look at what they’re doing the week before. No need to continue those multiple-hour efforts; make time to kick back, watch your nutrition, and get plenty of rest.
Worried about losing it all or even a little before the big day? When it comes to speed and strength, if you’ve been building those up for a while, it’s not going to disappear overnight.
“The two big advantages of a fitness component that takes a long time to build are that it takes a long time to lose, and that it is easy to maintain with a reduced workload,” according to Alan Woodward’s article on triathlete.com, How to Taper for an Ironman. “It is for these reasons that sprinters can reduce their training a long way out from a race without seeing a decline in performance. In fact they experienced increased performance as their muscles achieve a highly anabolic and recovered state during the taper.”
But what about endurance athletes – those people doing distance triathlons, running ultras or skiing marathons? Woodward said the ability to sustain energy or race intensity over a longer period of time actually comes faster in training, and therefore can be lost quicker. He recommends a week taper for these athletes rather than three easy weeks.
“We know from experience that we start to see a decline in endurance ability within seven to 10 days,” he wrote. “The endurance part of training must be maintained until seven to 10 days out from race day.
“In the last few weeks before a race you need to structure your training to maximize endurance and maintain strength and speed gains,” he added. “You don’t need to hammer out long sessions every day to develop peak endurance; a weekly long ride and long run are enough, nor do you need to perform a large amount of speed and strength training to maintain the speed and strength you developed earlier in the training cycle.”
Easy enough. But it’s not foolproof. Zach Caldwell, personal ski coach and owner/operator of Caldwell Sport in Putney, Vt., wrote in an email that it’s difficult to prescribe a one-size-fits-all taper method because of all the variables involved, but one of the biggest issues for non-professional racers is finding time to chill out.
“It’s one thing for [U.S. Ski Team member] Noah [Hoffman] to add an hour and half nap every day, or taper back the training. But anybody with a real job, or even school, has a much bigger task balancing life-energy demands with training and racing energy demands,” Caldwell wrote. “Finding balance for training usually isn’t that hard, but making enough room for a peaking effort can be REALLY difficult.”
Caldwell wrote the following on peaking and the process of finding that maximal energy state (and thus performance) on race day:
“Great performances in ski racing are generally characterized by really high energy. Energy states can vary a great deal week to week and even day to day. A 95-percent energy performance from a 90-percent fit athlete will beat an 80-percent energy performance from a 99-percent fit athlete. On the day of the race I’ll pick peak energy over peak fitness every time.
The problem is that a “high-energy” state is really hard to define in any kind of physiological terms. As soon as we acknowledge energy state as an important consideration, and organize training and tapering efforts around bringing peak energy to a race day, we’re pretty much off the reservation when it comes to working with traditional concepts in physiology.
An outline of the steps we take to prepare for high-energy performances looks something like this:
1. Practice – Organize training so that you practice recovery frequently. To manage energy during a racing season with frequent races, training and travel, you need to be able to take advantage of brief recovery periods. You don’t want to get into a situation where you need a week of rest in order to be fast. So, in training, we generally plan to assess recovery at least once or twice a week by building easy days into the schedule.
2. Understanding – It’s important for a racer to know how long it will take to recover from hard training. That will depend a lot on the overall load and energy state. In general, hard training will make you weaker for a little while, and then you’ll recover, compensate, and be stronger. How long will it take you to realize the benefit of hard training? If you do a set of intervals, when do you expect to be faster because of those intervals? During the training season, a lot of the hard work that gets done can be “hay in the barn” – you don’t need to get an immediate benefit. But during the race season you want to structure your efforts so that you realize the benefit quickly.
3. Train-Up – We seldom see great race efforts when the racer is trying to rest into racing shape. The best results come when a light intensity session soon before a race actually provides a performance boost. Kris Freeman’s best races have come when he’s been well rested coming into a race, and then done about a 15-minute threshold “activation” session the day before the race. Often he’ll simply take a lap of a 5 k race course. If he’s got good enough energy to benefit from that session within 24 hours, then he’ll make a pretty good race. If he needs recovery instead, then we’ve got no reason for optimism. Great race performances come when you’re in a good place to “train-up” to a peak effort.
4. Manage – Ensuring peak energy means managing recovery and expenditure. Obviously you need to take some rest – reduce the training load. But it’s also important to remember that the energy you use for racing is the same as the energy you use for everything else. At World Championships in Val di Fiemme, Noah Hoffman had a sub-par and very disappointing performance in his first race – the 30 k skiathlon. After that opening 30 k, he focused on the details of energy management – he took an hour and a half nap every day, he turned his computer off by nine p.m. every night, and he made sure he was in bed with the lights out by 10 p.m. Four days after the 30 k, he was 15th in the 15 k skate – certainly one of his most impressive races to date.”
— Zach Caldwell | CaldwellSport.com
For more on tapering and how it affects the body, check out Margaret Waechter’s article in the Master Skier.
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.