Taper-week Tragedy. Learn These 5 Tips to Avoid Getting Injured And Sick In The Taper Week
Over my 25 years of observing, racing and coaching athletes for Triathlon, without a doubt the taper phase is the highest risk phase of and buildup. This article will drill down into the most common reasons why athletes fall sick and also get injured during taper week. Also, we will share our top 5 tips to ensure this doesn't happen to you!
If you have been following a typical training buildup your program is going to look something like this:
- 8-12 weeks of strength endurance work
- 3-6 weeks of speed-work
- 1-2 taper weeks
If we dig into the specifics of the above, your body is most likely to be on the edge of 'health', in the final 2-3 weeks of speed work. As you can see in the graph below, weeks 3-6 are when your training volume and your training intensity intersect. It is certainly VERY HIGH-RISK weeks of the training plan!
It is likely you are in amazing shape and ready to turn those 'bricks' into a new PB!
Bubble Weeks - The Overarching Taper Week Strategy
The training has been done.
There is now is very little you can do to increase your performance on race day. However, there is a LOT you can do to break it.
To assist with your decision here is a small 'rule-book' that I developed over time:
- Less is more
- Take less risk
- Be aware and present
- Load up - Nutritionally!
- Trust No-one
Tip #1 - Less Is More!
It may take you many years of buildups and tapering for you to understand your own body. I know of professional athletes who would still knock out 30km in the pool the week of the race. Many sessions at race pace intensity!
On the other hand, there were athletes who I observed who would start tapering off, bike milage for an entire month before a large event.
The truth is that there is no 'one size fits all' taper strategy.
It is extremely individualized.
Variables that you may want to play with:
- When to start tapering specific disciplines. You may find you need to keep one or more discipline at a higher volume to closer to the race
- When will you get your last massage? 1 week before, 4 days before, the day before?
- For those at the professional end of the sport, if you have been at altitude, when will you come down to sea level?
- How many days do you want to get to the venue before the race?
Specifically, on flying. You need to consider if you suffer from water retention or any other symptoms from flying. Some people may need up to a week to acclimatise and come back to normal once they land. If you are new to the sport, we suggest that you give yourself MORE TIME. Bikes can get damaged in travel and it's highly likely that something is going to go wrong.
Pro tip: As you can see, the importance of keeping excellent training logs and also post-race reviews becomes critical!
There is no-way to retain detailed information like the above, season-after-season.
Tip #2 - Take Less Risk
When your body comes off that peak level of training weeks, it enters almost a 'twilight zone' state. You have taken it to the edge of your limits, and you all of a sudden tell it to rest.
Due to this, you may experience some brain fog or lack of clarity
So follow these guidelines:
- Move your cycling onto a wind-trainer. Yes, cycling on the road is more fun, but it is also way more dangerous. Do you want to waste an entire season/ buildup, on one silly mistake on a 75min easy spin?
- Run in daylight, on flat smooth surfaces, in quality running shoes. Its probably not something you would even usually think about, but I know so many people who have misjudged curbs and gone over on an ankle or stepped in the 'only pothole' on the run course 3 days out
- Pre-race the day before or day of your race. Be careful about water entry and exits. A shell or a nail on a ramp can end a race (and it has!)
This advice also extends to even more basic things. Here is a list of very silly things that tend to happen during a taper and how to avoid them:
- Turn lights on when you wake up in the night for a pee. Door frames, beds and boxes are all things that toes love to smash
- Wear shoes. It's simple and effective. You put them on when you wake up! Make sure they are running shoes or other full covered shoes
- Don't hang around people who are displaying any of the following; sneezing, coughing, fevers, vomiting or any gastric issues
Tip #3 - Be Aware And Present
Closely tied to taking less risk. Above we have outlined how to mitigate potential bad situations. However, there are 101 ways that 'the world' is going to sneak up on you. No matter how many triathlons you have done or how many thousands of people you have coached, there will be something that happens that will be remarkable unforeseen.
YOU must be Aware and Present
As per the above. If you are going to ride on the road, make sure that you are more vigilant than usual. It's likely you are on form, travelling faster than usual. So things will happen fast and unexpectedly!
I recall sitting down 6 weeks out with my father who also was my coach, for the New Zealand Triathlon Schools Championships. As a principle, I knew every year there were likely to be a number of athletes who were simply 'better' than me. On any given day of the week, I would have been beaten by at least half of the top tier. Luckily the race was not any given day of the week, it was to be on a specific date in time, and getting this 'right' was the key to statistically being better than you should be.
So during these sit-down sessions, we would write down the names of athletes who were direct competitors. Usually, we came up with a list of 10-15 guys. So it would follow like this:
- 3 of them won't make the start line
- 3 of them will psychologically 'blow up'
So the race is down to around 7 guys. Of those 7:
- 3 will have 'bad days'
So to be in the top 3-5 on any given year, I needed to make sure I was on the startline, psychologically prepared and ready and to have a 'smart enough' race to be where I needed to be for as long as I needed to be there.
This planning and clarity helped me and it can help you too.
If you have done Triathlon long enough, you will know it becomes a pattern of executing lots of small variables well. To do this, you need to be AWARE and PRESENT. There are just too many things that can go wrong. So being about to follow a clear strategy and execute well, will help you a lot in this sport!
Tip #4: Load up - Nutritionally!
In the final weeks of your speed phase, as you are pushing your body to its limit. This is the time where you want to be increasing the number of key nutrients that your body will need. Here are a few key items that you may want to consider (but certainly not limited to):
- Vitamin C
- B Vitamins
- Branch chain amino acids
- Overall electrolytes and water intake
Overall with the rest of your nutrition - do not change a thing!
Broad changes to your diet should be started at the early stages of your buildup.
I have been on World Championship teams with athletes who 'heard' that some 'pro athlete' wakes up at 3am and eats a baked potato the morning of the race. Because this person was a world-beater, they tried to do the same - no less the morning of the World Champs. Needless to say, this didn't sit too well!
Simply find foods that are working for you. If they are based around sound nutrition principles that's even better, but as a raw starting point, just try to have consistency.
This means - when you are in your KEY speed weeks doing your 'race simulation long brick sessions' you will follow an exact 24hour race day plan that consists of:
- The night before meal
- Evening water, electrolyte, tea or other beverage consumption
- Breakfast as well as beverages
- Pre-race fluids (water and/ or electrolytes)
- Any gels that you would have pre-race on the day
- You EXACT Nutrition Plan that you have in place through the course of your brick session.
Pro tip: For that racing Ironman, you may also want to consider coming OFF caffeine in the taper weeks before the event. As we all know, our bodies build a tolerance to caffeine. If you plan to take caffeine in your gels or even move to drinking Coke at some point in your Ironman event, you may want to give your body a 'detox' so then on race day you squeeze more out of the caffeine you put in!
Tip #5 - Trust No-One
You did the work
You put in the hours of training
You have signed up and are the one of the startline
At the end of the day, you can trust no-one. Triathlon can be an extremely empowering and also lonely sport for this fact. Because, when the gun goes off and you are pushed into the moment of your first swim stroke and breath, you know that it is about the here and now.
There are just simply too many things that can go wrong during taper week. So you need to be ready to step up and be there 100% for yourself.
Also, if the worst happens, you also need to know that there will always be another race.