What to Do in the Weeks Before a Race
First things first: Congratulate yourself. You are a few weeks away from what might be one of the most rewarding efforts you'll make in your life. You've made it this far, and you're still standing (hopefully). Training for a triathlon, even for a sprint distance, is no small task. It takes commitment, self-discipline, and an unfaltering capacity for bearing with aches and pains.
You've made it through the scorching hot and humid summer runs when garden sprinklers were few and far between. You've weathered the chilly spring mornings on your bike, when you wished your helmet had a heater. You've tolerated inconsiderate toddlers invading your lap swimming lane. You've come a long way and are probably in better shape than 99 percent of the population. Take pride in your accomplishment. You're ready to complete your first triathlon, up the distance, or go for a personal best. Whatever your goal, congratulate yourself on just getting to where you are now.
But don't pat yourself on the back for too long. You've still got a few weeks to go. Even if your training hasn't been perfect or you've overtrained a little, the next few weeks are the critical zone, a period where it's essential that you pay attention to some vital details.
Complete Your Last Long Run
Running takes the greatest toll on your body, so make sure you give yourself plenty of time to recover before your race. You should do your last long run, but not your longest, approximately 14 days before the race. Run a distance roughly equivalent to half of your longest previous run. Some triathletes run their longest run on this day, but elite runners have ideal muscle composition for running (predominantly slow-twitch fibers) that allow for quick recovery. The majority of triathletes require more time, so your longest run should be three to four weeks before race day.
Stick to the Tapering Schedule You've Set for Yourself
If you've been following the training advice in part II, tapering will already be built into your training calendar. Triathletes often find this phase of training the most mentally difficult to deal with. The thinking usually goes something like this: “I've been training hard. My body has adapted well. I'm in great shape for the big race. Why in the world would I want to let up?”
Believe it or not, if you've trained as hard as you think you have, your body has to recover from the cumulative distance you've put on your feet, legs, and arms. Although you might feel just fine, there are likely microscopic tears in your muscle tissue, tears that need a few weeks of easy training and a few rest days to completely heal.
If you have any doubts about the value of tapering and are itching to just ditch this part of your training plan, consider a little scientific evidence. A study at Malaspina College in British Columbia and the University of Alberta shows how necessary tapering is to triathletes. In the study, 25 athletes trained for an hour five days a week for six weeks at a high-intensity level of 75 to 85 percent (Mora 1993). After six weeks, seven athletes tapered for three days, cutting down on volume (not intensity), and a second group tapered for six days. A third group tapered by doing no exercise at all for four full days, and an unfortunate bunch in the fourth group exercised at the same intensity and volume until test day (equivalent to race day).
The results showed a 12 percent increase of the lactate threshold level in both the three-day and six-day taper groups. (For the purposes of this study, the lactate threshold is a measure of how long the athletes could maintain a certain exercise intensity before too much lactic acid, a waste byproduct of exercise, builds in the blood.) The no-exercise group made no improvement, and the train-to-death group decreased their lactate threshold level.
Glycogen levels were also measured. (Remember, your glycogen storage is like a fuel tank; the more glycogen you have, the longer you can go.) Glycogen storage levels soared by 25 percent with the six-day program. The three-day and the no-exercise groups showed an increase of 12 percent. Once again, the train-to-death group smelled of overtraining: Their glycogen levels dropped 12 percent.
“My focus was the cellular level, finding the physiological results of tapering. Of course, everybody wants to know about performance,” says J.P. Neary, PhD, who headed the study. “The results determine that a little extra rest helps cells work more efficiently during exercise.”
Neary emphasizes that tapering is subject to a host of variables specific to the individual and the training event. For example, a half-Ironman distance race requires longer, slower training than used in the study, and older athletes tend to require longer recovery times. Thus triathletes training for longer distances might do better with more tapering; older triathletes might also need more tapering. The point is to stick to the tapering suggestions and sample tapering charts presented in chapter 7. Don't let the excitement of the pending drama or your impatience ruin your chances of having a great race.
Watch Your Diet
There are a few important areas to consider concerning your diet in the weeks preceding the big event:
- If you've been following the recommended 65 to 70 percent carbohydrate diet for a triathlete, your pantry should be well-stocked with pasta, grains, fruits, and vegetables. (If not, do some shopping.)
- Are you staying away from high-fat foods like cheese, whole milk, and butter? Make an effort to fine-tune your diet. If you haven't been a good boy or girl, make a commitment to get your nutritional act together in the coming critical weeks. You've come too far to let diet stop you from being your very best. The key word here is fine-tune. Don't make any last-minute drastic diet changes that will be hard on your body.
- If you have a deficiency of protein in your diet, integrate some legumes, egg whites, and low-fat dairy products into your diet.
- Are you keeping well hydrated? Make sure you drink 6 to 10 eight-ounce (240 mL) glasses of water a day.
Try Some Mental Training
You've come far in your physical training, but have you trained your mind with positive thoughts and visualization of the finish line? If not, devote some time to this important, but often overlooked, detail.
Begin to set aside 15 to 30 minutes every day in a quiet place where you won't be interrupted. Close your eyes and relax. Take deep, slow breaths, inhaling through your mouth and exhaling through your nose. Visualize every phase of the race, from starting line to the glorious finish. See yourself relaxed and confident on the day of the race. You're calm and cool within the hustle and bustle of the crowd. See as much detail as possible, and feel an eager anticipation to meet the challenge that awaits you. If you're not used to meditating, visualizing might seem difficult at first. Persist, as you've done with your physical training.
Test Your Prerace Meal
The weeks before a race are a good time to experiment with your ideal prerace meal. Try eating a high-carbohydrate snack, such as a bagel and banana, 60 to 90 minutes before a moderate to long workout to ensure you don't experience nausea. Another good prerace meal is an energy bar containing about 40 to 50 grams of carbohydrate with 8 ounces of water 60 to 90 minutes before the race. If you do experience nausea, your stomach might be sensitive. Try something else, or try timing your prerace meal so that you eat it as long as two hours before you start exercising.
Some sports products are specifically designed to be easily digestible, such as several of the products we covered in chapter 8. You might want to test out some of these as preevent meals during your training:
- A carbohydrate loading and recovery drink
- A balanced nutrition shake with plenty of carbohydrate, moderate protein, and low fat content
- Carbohydrate gels and energy bars
Practice Your Transitions
Now is a good time to practice your swim-to-bike transition, known as T1 in tri-speak, and your bike-to-run transition, known as, you guessed it, T2.
Practice your T1 transitions on a beach. Set up a mock transition area at an open-water swim site and have somebody watch your stuff while you swim. Lay everything you're going to need on a towel, just like you will do at the race transition area (I'll give you a checklist later in this chapter). Don't make this a long workout. Swim a short distance, practice getting out of your wetsuit (if you'll be wearing one), change into your bike gear, and go for a short ride.
Practice your T2 transition on another day. Again, set up a mock transition area, but this time you can set it up on your doorstep. Go for a short bike ride, and then change into your running gear and go for a short run. Although you should have already done some brick workouts, these practices should help you make smooth transitions and get used to the gear and clothing (if any) changes. You should also decide how you want to approach the transitions. Essentially, there are two ways of transitioning: the fast way and the comfortable way.
The Fast Way
The fast way means racing in your swimsuit. The benefit is obvious: a quick transition. The drawbacks are also obvious: saddle soreness and, if it's a cool day, goose bumps. As I've mentioned before, most competitive triathletes competing in sprint- or Olympic-distance triathlons choose to go this route. Riding in a swimsuit is tolerable for most people for these relatively short distances, and if you've wisely purchased a triathlon swimsuit with some padding, that will help as well.
The Comfortable Way
If you have personal reasons for not riding and running in your swimsuit or feel that bike shorts will make a big difference in terms of comfort, then by all means, take your time and slip them on over your swimsuit. (Most triathlons of shorter distances don't have changing areas, and being naked in the transition area is cause for disqualification and possible arrest!) Feel free to stop and don cycling shorts, cycling jersey, and any other clothing that you feel will help you maintain comfort. Of course, all that extra dressing will add to your transition time. But if you're just doing the triathlon to finish, who cares?
Whether you run with or without socks depends on how sensitive your feet are. Again, most triathletes forgo this for shorter distances, but that doesn't mean you have to. An inexpensive and helpful item to make your running shoe transition quick are lace locks or similar quick-locking laces devices. These attach to your shoelaces and make tying your shoes as simple as tightening the laces and pulling down. They are surprisingly solid and dependable, tightening your laces as well as a double knot. Some specialty triathlon running shoes come with something like this built in, but if yours do not, consider it a low-cost, time-saving investment.
Unless you feel an insatiable need to show off your new duds, there's really no need for running shorts. One exception may be if you're wearing bulky cycling shorts, which may chafe your groin area and be a nuisance on the run. If that's the case, go ahead and put on those running shorts over your swimsuit (most short- to medium-triathlon transition areas do not have a changing area, although ducking into a port-a-potty is always an option, albeit a nasally offensive one).
This is an excerpt from Triathlon 101.