Race week: How to taper and prepare

October 17, 2014

So you’ve picked an event (months ago!), have been committed to your training and race week is drawing closer by the day. Training we know; we do it week in and week out, sometimes for months on end for those crazy ironman triathlons. But doing a 200km bike ride and a 30km run the weekend before an ironman triathlon wouldn’t help freshen you up for your event would it?

Tapering is the period of training preceding a major event. The goal of the taper period is to put the finishing touches on an athlete’s preparation in order to achieve peak performance on race day. The taper phase is a highly debated topic. Every athlete responds differently and requires a different approach to each race. It is also heavily dependent on the event you are competing in. An athlete doing a 100m freestyle event will hardly taper in the same manner as someone aiming for a sub- 14 hour ironman triathlon.

Tapering requires a reduction in:

  • The volume (ie. amount) of training: somewhere between 60-90%
  • The duration of training sessions: this can occur over 4-21 days (event dependent) and
  • The frequency of training: reduced by up to 20%

This aims to decrease the training stress in hope of optimising performance come race day.  Recovery time and sleep are also factored into taper so to decrease the level of difficulty of the training done during this phase. It is recommended that some intensity (at race pace or higher) still be maintained during this period as scientific studies have shown it to have positive physiological effects.

An effective taper requires meticulous planning by the coach and athlete and should include event specific activities but also consider the travel and stress that comes with race preparation.

Taper week is the perfect time to see your Physiotherapist for treatment of any ongoing injuries or race week niggles. If you require taping or strapping of an area, schedule your visit as close to the event as possible to ensure the taping lasts. Otherwise, you might consider booking a sports massage a few days out from the race. Don’t have a massage the day before the event as it can leave you feeling lethargic and heavy. If you are familiar with massage there’s no harm in having your normal standard treatment. If you aren’t used to it, err on the side of caution with a light pre-race sports massage.

If applicable, make sure you have your equipment well maintained pre-race. Book your bike in for a pre-race service early in the week to accommodate for any unforseen mechanicals. If you have flown to an event it is also a good idea to have the race mechanic run over your bike’s gears and brakes after travelling. If you’re competing in water sports, perform a thorough inspection of your surf ski, board or kayak for deep scratches, chips, cracks or holes, as well as checking the rudder, foot-brace, fittings and paddle for damage.

Try not to overeat during your taper period. Be mindful that you aren’t training as much as usual therefore maintaining your normal training diet is essentially carb loading. Be organised in your meal planning. If you are competing away from home, having access to a kitchen may not always be possible. If you do have access, make sure you have a list of all the food you want and require for your pre-race meal (and dessert!) and race-morning breakfast. If you don’t have a kitchen, do some research into close accessible takeaways or restaurants that will cater for your needs. Stick with ‘safe’ foods so as to avoid the dreaded food poisoning. Raw fish and unusual local cuisine is best left to after the race.

Hydration is also especially important in the two to three days leading up to a race, especially endurance events. Don’t overdo pure water consumption as it can have a detrimental effect on your sodium (salt) levels (hyponatremia). Low caloric electrolyte drinks (eg. Nuun or salvital) and some sports drinks are better options when pre-hydrating for a race. Try to pre-hydrate throughout the morning and early afternoon so to avoid getting up through the night for the bathroom.

Write out a detailed list of all pre-race and race-day equipment. This should include your warm up clothes to what you will wear once finishing. If you are competing in a multisport event have a list of equipment, clothing and nutrition required for each leg. The night before the event lay it all out and practice going through what you will do and need for each leg and transition. Visualisation of this process is also helpful in confirming your preparation for race day.

Be familiar with the event you are taking part in. Make sure you read emails, competitor booklets, course maps and attend the race briefing. You don’t want to be penalised for any minor infringements, such as not wearing your number on the bike leg. Knowing the race rules is your responsibility. On race day familiarise yourself with the start, the finish and all that’s in-between. If it is a multisport event know where to enter and exit transition and pick an obvious visual marker to identify your equipment location easily.

Race weekend is exciting but try not to get caught up in the hype in the days prior to the event. Don’t spend hours walking through the expo or watching other events. Keep off your legs as much as possible the day before the race.

Most importantly HAVE FUN! You paid good money to be out there, so even if things don’t go to plan, smile and enjoy your day.

Hot 5 Race week tips:

  • RECOVER: Less is more. If you are tired this is the week to skip a session. Sleep in or take the afternoon off if you feel you need it. It’s better to be slightly underdone than overcooked.
  • RELAX: Don’t panic: it is perfectly normal to feel ordinary during your taper phase. This is a good sign that your body is recovering and repairing in preparation for a peak performance.
  • BE PREPARED: Write lists of what you will need; clothes, food & equipment. Additionally be familiar with the schedule of events, the course and the race rules.
  • HYDRATE & FUEL: eat foods you are used to & that you have trialled during training. Don’t try anything new on race day (or the day before). Pre- hydrate for endurance events 2-3 days prior with fluid containing electrolytes.
  • GET UP EARLY ON RACE DAY: it’s better to be early on race day than rushing around at the last minute. Give yourself plenty of time to eat breakfast, get to the race, set up and stand in the toilet line before your event starts.

Adam McKenzie

Adam has worked in private practice for the past 14 years and is now full time at Warana Sportscare. Adam has extensive experience in orthopedic rehabilitation and was involved with office/workstation assessment for office workers when working in London.