Once the taper begins, the drastic reduction in physical training refreshes my body and mind. All of a sudden, Ironman pace feels easy instead of labored and my little speedy race prep workouts feel sharp. My mind wants to race. My spirit is renewed and I feel ready to tackle the Ironman day!
Here are 12 Ironman taper tips that can make your next Ironman your best journey.
- Before the official taper begins, say one month before your key Ironman race, decide on one key run workout and one key bike workout for each week and then, rest for them. Apply the same mental focus and physical effort that you want to execute on race day. During the normal Ironman build, the volume often gets very high and many of our workouts become “completion exercises” – you just want to get them done. Well, these key run and bike workouts should be “execution exercises” where your goal is to mimic you race day attitude and effort. So essentially, your quality should improve and your quantity will decrease slightly. Hence, the taper is beginning unofficially.
- Whether you choose to apply a two-week or three-week “official” taper, include three or four very light days from the 14th day to the 10th day or from the 21st day to the 17th day. Dramatic early rest will shock your body into recovery and you will absorb those last few quality weeks and capitalize on those workouts. I recommend a 3-week taper for most athletes.
- During these 14-21 days, do not “test” yourself or your fitness. If you can commit to this, then you will make two huge strides in your taper. First of all, you will not “think” about testing yourself and that will give your mind a rest from unconfident thoughts and you will be able to focus confidently on your race visualization. Secondly, your body will thank you for the rest and all of the little training micro-traumascan heal so that you can earn some new muscular traumas on race day!
- Replace the physical training with some mental preparation especially in the week before the race. Once I wake up in the morning, I spend an extra 30 minutes in bed with my eyes shut visualizing the race. I can see myself race day morning preparing my bike, starting the swim, at 2 km in the swim, in transition, etc. I picture myself as I want to “be” on race day – with a perfect swim stroke, controlled transitions, content and thinking positively, smooth pedal stroke and quick running turnover. I visualize excellence. There is no mental benefit to seeing my training imperfections because there is nothing that I can do about them now – but by seeing myself executing the race perfectly, I might, in fact, realize the picture in my mind. Yet, I am also realistic. I think about some of the challenges that I might be confronted with and I think about how I, the perfect racer, would want to handle them. I establish plan A, plan B and plan C. I believe that those 30 minutes is the most important part of my taper.
- Plan to travel to the race early enough so that you can recover from the travel. Traveling east can wreck havoc on your body. You will need at least one day per hour of time change to acclimatize perfectly. Being “off” by 5% on Ironman race because of jetlag can be the difference between qualifying for the Hawaii Ironman or not. If your goal race time is 10 hours, then a 5% jet lag factor will add 30 minutes to your finish. Also, factor in time to acclimatize to the heat if you choose to race in a tropical location. I allow about 8 to 10 days to acclimatize to the conditions in Kona.
- Once you factor in travel recovery time, also consider arriving at your race destination early enough so that you have time to tour the course. Those 3 days before an Ironman are so busy with registration and preparing your gear for race day, that you might need another day in your itinerary allow yourself the opportunity to see the course. By driving the bike course or riding portions of the route or doing one of your pre-race run sessions on part of the run course, you will be able to add that visual to your pre-race mental preparation and you will be doing hands-on visualization. The day before the Florida Half Ironman, I drove the bike course and identified the key areas where my skills would be maximized and areas where I might have to be extra tough. On race day, I used this information and built those elements into my race strategy.
- As important as mental preparation is, be sure to take time off from all race preparation. Do your mental homework and leave it. Do your physical race prep and then leave it. Visit the expo and register and then leave it. Fill your mind with other thoughts. Avoid mental overtraining and avoid excessive race stimulation. I set aside scheduled time for all of my race tasks and for my mental preparation and once that time passes, I move on. Often, I’ll slip into mental prep mode accidentally, but I quickly remind myself that I have done my mental rehearsal and it is “me time” or “family time”. At the Hawaii Ironman, I find myself so over-stimulated that I do not go to the expo and I never swim at the pier (Dig-Me Beach). I can sense when I need a break from race mode, but the difficulty is in acting on it. Race day requires so much mental stamina that you need to rest your mind in those days before the race. Read a novel. Make a list of movies you had to miss during your Ironman training and rent them. Don’t necessarily plan any big projects for your taper because your mind needs to rest. Planning your garden or house renovations will not be a rest.
- As a part II to the previous tip, avoid being over-stimulated by your friends and family. Everyone around you will be in race mode. Some of your fellow competitors might be panicking and they might draw you into that panic mode. Remember those high school days of writing exams. There were always those anxious students. “Did you study that? I studied for 20 hours. Oh I learned that stuff. Of course that chapter is on the exam.” Meanwhile, you studied for 10 hours and only dabbled on that particular chapter. Resist comparing training schedules and long ride and run frequency and duration. You made your training and coaching choices. Accept them. Avoid being around people who drain your energy. Create space for yourself away from the Ironman chatter. You will likely even need to distance yourself from well-meaning and loving family members who might be full of suggestions which might only serve to unnerve you.
- In terms of physical race preparation, keep your workouts short and at race pace. During the week of the Ironman, most of my sessions were less than one hour and produce no fatigue. Swim sessions focus on doing 50’s, 100’s and maybe a few 200’s at race pace. Biking and running involve some 30 second to 2 minute pick ups and maybe a few miles at race pace. These are always feel good efforts with lots of rest in between. If I feel injured or ill, I ask myself “do I have more to gain or to lose by doing that session?” When on the verge of injury or illness, you always have more to lose by doing a race prep training activity. The two weeks before the race prepare you to race. Running with mild Achilles tendonitis will not prepare you to race fast!
- With the dramatic reduction in training, it is important to keep moving, to stretch and get massage. Don’t do anything that you don’t usually do. For example, don’t try yoga if you have never done it. Yes, yoga can be relaxing, but it won’t be relaxing if you over-do it.
- Be extremely organized. Think, and rethink all the logistics of the race. Being disorganized leads to stress, which takes energy away from your race. I make lists of things to do each day. I also make a list of items for my swim to bike bag and bike to run bag and a list of things that I need to bring to the race on race day morning. Trust me, your rational thoughts will be doing flip-flops in the 48 hours before the race and you will not trust yourself to remember everything. I prepare the lists when I am still rational and not nervous or too excited. Then, on race day morning, I just check off the items on the list. Yes, the pen shakes in my hand, but I can get the job done.
- In terms of nutrition, it is important to eat well. Having said that, your activity will be drastically reduced so you will not need to eat as much food as you did during your intense training days. My rule is to never go hungry, but I never over-eat. I still eat a lot of carbohydrates as if I was fuelling a bit workout,but I also eat protein at each meal just as I do every day of the year. Always have a snack in your bag and a bottle of water in your hand if you go out. In the 48 hours before race day, top up your energy stores. Do not go to bed hungry. In terms of electrolyte balance, salt your foods in order to store a bit more sodium in your cells. Most Ironman races, even those in moderate climates, cause athletes to sweat out much sodium. If you are racing in extreme heat, you might even want to supplement your fluid intake with some sodium pills in addition to salting your meals.