You can listen to the audio by clicking above, or download it here
Alexey’s race plan for his first-ever IM with a time of 10:42 can be found here.
The staggered taper and staggered race week, a chat with original Ironmen, plus the consequences of following a race plan. Today on Tri Talk.
Welcome to Tri Talk your podcast source for triathlon tips, training, news and more. Greetings to new listeners in New Hampshire and the Czech Republic. In New Hampshire, I hope you had a good race at Timberman, and in the Czech republic, thanks to my new friends Petr and Tomas for their advice on training venues during my recent 2 week stay in that country. My goal at Tri Talk is to help you swim, bike, and run faster, to meet your personal triathlon goals. Whether you are an elite or amateur triathlete, we cover sprint distance to Ironman distance. I’m your host, David Warden, and this is Tri Talk Episode 72.
Today on Tri Talk I’ll introduce a concept that on one hand is so obvious, yet on the other can be so complex. What does it mean to stagger your taper and race week? We’ll look into that, plus review an example of the consequence of sticking to a good race plan. Just like I tell me kids, consequences are good, not bad. I’ll also be sharing some interviews with 2 of the original Ironmen from the first race in 1978.
Let’s get onto the good stuff. One of the most complex pieces of creating an annual training plan is adjusting the taper and the actual race period. How much volume? How intense? How frequent? Months of hard work can be eroded from not paying attention to these critical periods, and I find it one of the most challenging components of creating an annual plan.
Unfortunately, what I’m going to discuss will only add more complexity to taper and race period planning. That’s the bad news. The good news is that I believe taking these additional, though complex, steps when creating your plan will improve performance even further on race day.
Let’s begin with a quick review of the purpose and rules of the taper and race periods. The purpose of the taper is to both eliminate accumulated fatigue and promote the supercompensation process. The supercompensation process is possibly the most important aspect of training. Introducing measured stress to the body, forcing it to a new level of homeostasis in order to adapt to that stress, coupled with rest to allow the body to recover and build a new level of fitness. When done correctly, the taper period, which is part of the “peak” period if using classic periodization vernacular, is the period of training when the highest level of supercompensation takes place. An athletes can expect to see an approximate 2% improvement in performance after a well-planned taper, when compared to their best performance in training.
That’s the purpose of the taper period: Reduce fatigue and promote maximum supercomensation. One could argue that both of those are part of the same process, but I think of them as distinct processes.
The two general rules of tapering are 1) the longer the event, the longer the taper and 2) the more fit you are the longer the taper. A typical Ironamn taper is three weeks for a fit athlete, and maybe a Sprint could be two weeks. However, for a less-fit athlete, the taper for an Ironman could only be two weeks, and perhaps only a week for a Sprint.
Now, let’s discuss the purpose of the race period. The purpose of the race period is to maintain fitness. Yes, there may be some fitness gained during a multi-week race period, but the primary goal is simply to not lose what has been gained in training. This may only be a 1 week period for an Ironman athlete, or a 2 month period for a Sprint athlete. Regardless, the purpose of the race period is to maintain fitness. I’ve heard some people say that the purpose of the race period is to have fun. I don’t get that.
Most of the content we read about tapering and race the period makes a big mistake. It treats the taper and race period as a single sport. In our case, triathlon. It assumes that all 3 disciples should be treated the same during the taper and race periods. Obviously, when training, we don’t peanut-butter our training over all 3 sports. We spend more time on our weaknesses, and less time on our strengths. Why should this change when we reach the taper and race period? An athlete should be tapering for less time on their weak discipline, and more time on their strong discipline. Additionally, an athlete is unlikely to maintain a 6-week race period equally in all 3 disciplines. They may only be able to maintain a run peak for 3 weeks. I’ve only ever coached 1 athlete who was truly balanced in all 3 sports. We all have strengths and weaknesses between the swim, bike, and run.
Let me give you an example. One of my athletes recently completed a 2 month race period, which was preceded by 2 weeks of tuneup races before the race period began. 4 weeks into the period, I analyzed his first 4 races, so I had 6 straight weeks to review. I found a consistent pattern. His bike and run performance were better than in training, remaining high and steady for the 4 week race period.
However, his swim performance was fascinating. His best swim of most recent 6 races was his first swim at the beginning of his taper period. From that period on, his swim got progressively slower. This was measured by calculating his finishing percentile on the swim. In this case he went from top 5% in his first swim, progressively down to top 9% in the 4th race of his race cluster, or 6 weeks into my analysis. I recognize that there is a distinct margin of error when using this kind of calculation method, but it is was the best method available to me.
It became clear to me that I had made 2 mistakes in his taper and race period planning. I knew that his swim was the weakest of the 3 sports. My first mistake was tapering him for 2 weeks for all 3 disciplines, when in fact I should have tapered him for only a week on the swim. Second, his swim fitness was unlikely to hold for 8 weeks, he really needed to increase volume on the swim at about 3 weeks into his race cluster, or in other words, his swim peak only could last for 3 weeks of the 8-week cluster.
We immediately increased his swim volume for the last 4 weeks of his race cluster. We had 4 weeks left in the cluster to try and fix his swim fitness. The next 2 weeks did not see a significant difference in swim time, in fact, one of the 2 races went as low as top 12% on the swim. This was to be expected, as the volume on the swim had increased for the that period.
His final 2 weeks of the race cluster we again did a small taper and reduced swim volume slightly. For the final two weeks, the athlete was back again in the top 5% on the swim, and won 1st place overall in his final event by just 20 seconds, which he would certainly not have done without this adjustment to the swim over the final 4 weeks.
Were I to do this athlete’s training plan again, I would have done a 1 week taper instead of a 2-week taper for the swim, leaving the bike and run at a two week taper. I would have also started to introduce volume back in the swim again after 3 weeks into the race period. Yes, this does mean that the athlete would experience a temporary reduction in swim fitness, but the tradeoff is 2 weeks of reduced swim performance for 3-4 weeks of significantly improved race performance.
So, how can you make these adjustments to your race plan? Unfortunately, this is absolutely more of an art than a science. You’ll notice that all of my support for this theory is anecdotal. Yes, while this theory is consistent with the purpose and rules of tapering and racing, there is no specific triathlon study on a staggered taper and race period planning. You have to really customize it for the individual athlete.
My advice would be this. If your run fitness is 30% worse than your swim fitness, consider having your run taper and race period be 30% less than your swim taper and race period. For example, 2 weeks instead of 3 weeks. How can you measure your run fitness compared to swim fitness? That part is also tough. An experienced coach, who has seen dozens of athletes times can easily determine your level of fitness relative to each other in all 3 sports by asking you your best times for each discipline. But if you only have yourself to compare to how do you know? Obviously, you can’t go based on time alone.
I think the best way for an athlete without access to a coach is to simply use the same percentile comparison I mentioned earlier. In a tune-up race, determine your percentile placement for each sport, and that will give you an idea of how to quantify your weakest sport.
This is really over-simplifying this theory, but I’d like to give you something to go on. You must also consider that running takes much longer than swimming to recover from, and so I would never have a run taper last less than 10 days for a half or full Ironman athlete, even for an athlete who is weak on the run. Also, the race period for an Ironman or half Ironman is usually just one race, so the staggered race period really only applies to athletes doing Sprint or Olympic race clusters.
Moving on. This next section will do very little to help you swim, bike, or run faster, but I hope you’ll find it entertaining and somewhat informative. This section serves two purposes. First, to give you a taste of being at a first-time athlete’s Ironman, and second, the consequences of following a race plan. I recently traveled to Germany to support one of my TrainingBible athletes, Alexey, at his first Ironman event, which also happened to be the inaugural Ironman for Regensburg.
Regensburg is situated an hour north east of Munich by car, in the beautiful region of Bavaria, the south-east area of Germany. Accompanied by my wife Rebecca, I arrived 3 days early to review the race plan, the course, adapt the plan for weather conditions, and perform the last few workouts with Alexey.
The evening before the event, I attended the pre-race meeting, and was delighted to bump into David Orlowski and Tom Knoll, two of the original Ironmen finishers from the first Iromman in Hawaii in 1978.
Anxiously waiting next to me is a young woman names Petra, obviously an athlete, who asks if she can have her picture taken with David and Tom.
After the picture (and waiting in line for my turn with Tom), I’m able to ask him about the unusual trophy on the table.
The next morning I follow a tradition of arriving way too early at T1, and I’m not even racing this morning. But it is a beautiful morning.
A final review of the race plan, some pictures, a few hugs from his friends family, and he’s off to he starting line. My last piece of advice to Alexey: Get behind 2005 Ironman champion Faris Al Sultan and keep up with him for the first 10 meters, which it turns out he actually did.
We often hear about the athletes fighting the “washing machine” that inevitably occurs in an Ironman mass swim start, but often overlooked is the spectator during the beginning of the race, caught in their own battle for positioning before the swim start.
The swim is Alexey’s weakness, and the entire plan could be jeopardized early with a poor swim time. Alexey and I have set a goal of under 11 hours, which for a first time Ironman is challenging enough, but on a bike course through the Bavarian foothills with over a kilometer to ascent, it’s a downright aggressive goal. To meet that goal, he’ll have to be on the bike in no less than 90 minutes, that’s a swim plus T1 in 90 minutes. 30 minutes into the swim, I’m making sure that I stay focused and professional.
81 minutes into the swim, Alexey hits dry land. A personal best 2.4 mile swim. However, that is quickly neutralized by a poor T1 of over 6 minutes. Fortunately, the overall time onto the bike is still 88 minutes, 2 minutes ahead of the plan.
As Rebecca and I race from point to point on the bike, I forget to record audio, I’m too focused on being a coach and spectator at this point. At 90 kilometers, or 56 miles, I meet Alexey and talk for just a few moments. He shows me his power output, which is exactly where we had set it in the plan for the first half of the bike leg, plus he is exactly on schedule for the first half of the bike, literally down to the minute, maintaining 2 minutes ahead of schedule overall for the day.
By the time Alexey hits the run, he is 5 minutes ahead of schedule, having blasted a negative split by 5 minutes on the bike, a good sign of perfect pacing. However, another poor T2 ate into another couple of precious minutes. I obviously did not schedule in enough transition practices. At this point, it all comes down to the run, meticulously planned at specific kph for the first 20K. Rebecca and I find ourselves in a good viewing spot, the 4 loop run course allows us to stay in the same place and see Alexey 3 times before the finish. We’re finally able to relax for the first time all day, and reflect that this is the first time we have been to an IM event together both as spectators.
Anyone who has done an Ironman before, knows the run is the big unknown. Very few people drop out of an Ironman before the run. Check out any Ironman results page, and you’ll see the list of DNF’s all have a swim and bike time, and then drop off the radar.
The good news is that Alexey has over 4 hours to finish the marathon to reach his 11-hour goal. The bad news is that this is only his second marathon ever, and his first marathon time was a 3:45 last year. He’ll have to be within 15 minute of his marathon PR to hit 11 hours.
On the first of 4 loops, his pace is excellent, 10.5 kilometers in 52 minutes, well ahead of schedule.
His second loop is still solid, but shows a little bit of fade at 54 minutes. Not too bad, and still well over 2 hours to finish the last half marathon. More importantly, he was still smiling.
Our race plan actually accounted for the fact that the last half marathon of the run would be difficult, as he was heading into unknown territory. I didn’t even give Alexey a pacing goal for the last 20K, knowing that it is unwise to set a target for the last 20K of a first Ironman. He was on his own. And it turns out, I was right, damn it. 55 minutes into the third loop, no sign of Alexey. 56 minutes, 57, 58. And then I see a figure that looks like Alexey, but with run form that clearly indicates he is in pain. He stops for a moment to say he is “cramping badly.”
Alexey experienced debilitating cramps in his legs during a previous 70.3, and we had taken steps to mitigate those cramps, and for the first 9 hours of his IM, the plan worked perfectly. But, as I said, after 9 hours we were heading into unknown territory, a new endurance mark was being set, and his body was complaining.
I raced over to the finish line, hoping that the buffer he had built would be enough to overcome the cramps and still meet the goal. It was. In pain, but smiling, Alexey ran strong thorough to the finish in 10:45, holding his beaming 10-year-old son’s hand as he crossed.
Alexey is a great example of how sticking to a race plan based on actual training data can really work. I find it quite satisfying that based on all of his training, his best times equaled what should have been an 11-hour event. As mentioned earlier in the podcast, we could have expected to see a 2% improvement with a solid taper, and 2% of 11 hours is 13 minutes, almost the precise time he cut from his 11 hour goal. Congratulations to Alexey, his hard work, and sticking to the plan.
That’s all for episode 72, episode 73 will be guest-hosted by Ben Greenfield, the 2008 Personal Trainer of the Year. He is a rock star of the fitness world, and makes my professional resume look pathetic. Find out more about Ben at bengreenfieldfitness.com.
Congratulations to James Lawrence and Kim Shattuck. James is 15 half-Ironman races into his goal of 22 in less than 30 weeks, which will be recognized by Guinness as a world record. Find out more about James’ charity at triandgiveadam.com. Kim just placed 5th in her division and qualified for Clearwater in her first 70.3. That’s disgusting. I’d hate her, but I coach her…I’ll see you all next time.