Training can be a lot like drinking: to have a great time you need to know when to stop. In the week leading up to a race or event, athletes can do more to undermine their training than they can to enhance it. Yet, just like that “one more” drink, it’s the prospect of getting a little extra something that gets you in trouble.
Insecurity is what drives athletes to make mistakes in the week leading up to an important challenge. Confidence is perhaps the most beneficial trait of an elite athlete, and the best among them are wise enough to let their confidence guide them. The ultimate goal is an athlete who can recognize when fitness is at its peak and who is confident enough not to push further trying to get something more.
A good training program delivers the final significant training stimulus far enough out from your goal event to allow for both adaptation and complete recovery. For the majority of amateur cyclists, this means normal training should stop 7-10 days from your event and be followed by a short taper. Remember, training is stress, and in the short term it causes fatigue, which suppresses performance. The only way to reap all the benefits of your program is to significantly reduce your workload and let your true fitness rise all the way to the surface.
Since fitness changes somewhat slowly, it’s important to realize that no matter where your conditioning is with one week to go, that’s what you have to work with. In the time you have left, no combination of workouts is going to significantly boost your sustainable power over 1, 5, 20, or 60 minutes. That part of the equation is now fixed, but you can still control how rested and fresh you can be on the starting line.
The Balancing Act
A week of great sleep, easy spins, and good food would ensure you’re rested for race-day, but to be fresh you need some intense workouts. The two seem at odds but tapering is all about reducing the overall training workload while retaining just enough stimulus to keep the body primed and ready to go.
Reducing your training load is as simple as cutting back on the hours and miles, and also reducing your pace. If your rides are normally 90 minutes, this week they’re 60. Hour-long rides go to 45 minutes. They don’t have to be complete recovery rides, but you need to resist the urge to test yourself every time you go out. The fitness is there, but you have to trust it.
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If you’re preparing for a long one- or two-day event like a road race, the Leadville 100, or an MS150, your week should have one longer ride in it, preferably Wednesday. This is a “supercompensation ride” to deplete your carbohydrate stores and get your body to jumpstart all the metabolic processes so it’s prepared for the next time you pull something like that… like race day. People ask about 3-day and one-day carbohydrate loading techniques, and nutritionally they can both work, but overall for long one- or two-day events we find a supercompensation ride followed by a moderate increase in carbohydrate intake to be highly effective and less likely to be disruptive to an athlete’s routine.
If it’s a criterium or other short event you’re preparing for, then you need to balance rest with short, maximum-intensity workouts in order to keep your body primed without inducing a lot of fatigue. This can mean two sessions (Tues/Thurs or Wed/Fri) that include “1-on-1-offs”, 1 minute max efforts with one minute recoveries. Three sets of three is usually sufficient. You can also try high-speed sprints, even the day before the event, as these 15-second efforts that start from about 25-27mph downhill are great for making riders feel fast, powerful, and “open”.
After months of training the final week is where paths diverge: confident athletes rest easy knowing they’re as fit as they’re going to be, and insecure ones second-guess themselves. Besides some sample one-week taper schedules, the primary take-away should be this: Know when to say when. You’ll gain more from being fresh and rested than from anything you could add to your training within five days of your event.
Sample Road Race/Century/Charity Ride Taper
|Rest Day||60 minutes moderate pace||Rest day||3:00-4:00 hours steady pace. Be sure to eat and drink!||45 minutes recovery spin||60 minutes moderate pace, with 3x 3min high-cadence, low-resistance pedaling drills, 5min spinning between each.||THE BIG DAY!|
Sample Criterium Taper
|Rest Day||60 minutes moderate pace||Rest day||90minute moderate pace with 3×3 1-minute max efforts, 1min recovery between intervals, 6min recovery between sets.||45 minutes recovery spin||60 minutes moderate pace, with 5x 15sec High Speed Sprints, 4min recovery between each.||Say “Uncle” Criterium|
Sample Ironman Taper (final week only)
|Rest Day||90 min endurance miles with 2×10 min tempo Swim 2600||45 min endurance run with 6×15 sec strides||1 hour Endurance Miles with 2×5 min steady state, 30 min recovery run||Rest Day||30 min open water swim, 15 min recovery miles, 20 min recovery run with 4×10 sec strides||Ironman|