Training And Racing Through A Season

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This week on the blog we have a question from Tavis Bohlinger, originally from Southern California but studying at Durham University, UK:

I wonder if many Swim Smoothers, like myself, have signed up for more than one race this summer, perhaps Tri, OW, or a few of each. The question is, if we’ve spent all winter and spring training for that first 5k, for example, how should we be training in the intervening weeks between subsequent races? Do we keep taking recovery weeks? Do we carry on with business as usual?

That's a great question and it applies for anyone racing any distance of swimming, open water or triathlon event - how do you train through a race season for best performance in your races? Particularly if you're quite serious about your training and performances?

Key race: Brad Smith smokes the 21km Rottnest crossing

Training and Fatigue

Before we talk about training and race seasons, let's talk a bit about your normal training routine when you're not in a race season.

When you train hard week-in, week-out in an optimal way you have to live with some level of residual fatigue most of the time. If you take sufficient rest after one training session to completely freshen up before the next then you simply won't get enough training in. In other words "under-training".

Of course it's very possibly to go the other way - do too much training and end up very fatigued all the time so you can't perform well in any training session. This is "over-training" - you won't get much (if any) fitness gains and you also risk injury and illness.

So we aim to strike the right balance, training enough to get good fitness gains but not so much that we are tired all the time. How much training is optimal for you depends on the individual and how fit you are, but here is a rough guide:

For adult / age group swimmers, 4-6 swims a week is normally about optimal depending on fitness level.

For adult / age group triathletes, 2-4 swims a week is normally optimal depending on fitness level.

Tapering For Races

However when an important race comes around we normally need to back things off so that the normal level of training fatigue subsides and we are fresh for best performance in the race. This backing off of training is called "tapering" and for most pure swimming events, a taper between 3 and 10 days in length before the event is sufficient. You don't want to stop training completely when tapering but progressively reduce the distance and intensity of your sessions as you get nearer to race day.

Next week on the blog we'll talk a bit more about how to taper effectively but it's worth mentioning here that if you're only swimming twice a week then you don't really need to taper very much for an event. This includes triathletes swimming twice a week, who might be best served tapering mostly on the bike and run and keeping their swimming going normally with their last swim 3-4 days before race day.

Races As Training

Races are a lot of fun and to compete is the primary motivation of many athletes. Races are also very important for gaining experience and self belief too - and for those reasons it's unlikely you'll perform at your very best in the very first race of the season even if you're really fit. It takes a while to regain your "racing head" and ability to get yourself into that state of "flow" or "the zone" for best performance.

Of course a race is also a training session in its own right and will bring some fitness gains too. In fact races will probably turn out to be the hardest types of session that you do because of the element of competition and extra motivation that a race brings. So we shouldn't overlook the importance of races as training.

Are you searching for moments like these?

But there is a problem... By fully tapering down for a key race you are training less than you ideally would, returning you to that "under-training" scenario. Your fitness improvements will slow down, or stop coming at all. Despite the hardness of the race itself the overall training effect will almost certainly be lower than normal training.

That's not a problem for a one off race but let's say you want to do four events, each a week or two apart:

4th June - 5K open water race
11th June - Charity Pool Swimathon
25th June - 1500m open water race
9th July - Olympic distance triathlon

That looks great on paper but if you started your taper a week before the 5K race and rested up for each event then by the 9th of July you will have done less than half your normal training for 5-6 weeks. You'll have had a lot of fun but your fitness might be lower than at the beginning of June - and certainly lower than it could have been if the Olympic triathlon was your key event.

Here are a couple of key strategies to overcome this problem:

1) Think Of Races In Terms Of "A", "B" and "C"

One solution is to think of your races as types A, B and C and change your taper and mental approach accordingly:

"A" races are the most important ones for you, they're the ones that are getting you fired up and where you want to give your best performance. For these races you taper fully.

"B" races are where you want to enjoy them and do pretty well but no big deal. Give these races a mini-taper, perhaps 2-3 easy days in the build up.

"C" races matter little to you, they're perhaps smaller events for fun and experience. They might be a midweek club race for example. Don't taper for them at all - treat them purely as a training session!

Applied to the example events above, you might categorise each as:

"B" Race: 4th June - 5K open water race
"C" Race: 11th June - Charity Pool Swimathon
"C" Race: 25th June - 1500m open water race
"A" Race: 9th July - Olympic distance triathlon

Use a mini-taper for the 5K swim, don't taper at all for the Swimathon and 1500m and you'll be in best shape and have your race head engaged by the time July 9th's Olympic Tri comes around.

One final thought about A, B and C races: You might be surprised how well you perform in your B and C races despite the absence of a full taper. In fact you might actually perform better in your B races than in your A races and some athletes even find that they perform their very best in C races!

Sometimes this is due to the psychological stress of a big race or over-excitement and starting too fast before blowing up. But equally it can be because you don't actually need the taper you think you do. Many elite athletes err on the side of tapering less for this reason, especially for shorter events. Of course you don't want to go into any race very tired, but perhaps a smidgen of low-level fatigue is not necessarily a bad thing...

2) Spreading And Clustering A Races

So how should you position your A races through the season?

There's two ways you can do this, either cluster them very close together or spread them out to different points of the season:

Spreading: Here you space your key A races through the season so you are able to train well beforehand and then taper effectively for each. A gap of around 5-12 weeks works well. Some B and C races in the build-up to each will help you fine tune your racing and prepare yourself mentally and physically.

Clustering: Here you might place two A races on consecutive weekends - taper for the first fully, some light training in the week afterwards and go again the next weekend. If the first race is 60-90 minutes in length or less you can normally fully recover before the following weekend. As the time between is short, the fitness loss from reduced training is minimal.

If the first race is longer than 90 minutes (e.g Olympic distance triathlon) you might feel some residual fatigue in the second race, particularly if you really take it to the wall in the first one.

Of course you can combine these ideas and cluster 4 races into 2 groups a few months apart. And include some B and C races in the build up, training normally between races as you would in the off season:

(click to enlarge)

Swim Smooth!


Paulo Neves said...

I'll be trying to complete a 28Km open water swim in Spain on the 2nd of September this year. I am a little scared because the maximum distance I have completed was 16Km last September on 5h30min! On the previous weekend (26th of August) I have another OW event. It's a 10Km OW crossing which I have completed quite a few times and it usually takes me 3h:15min. I would tag this 10Km event as "type C" race, because completing the 28km crossing is definitely my main goal for this year! (Completing, means to be able to finish in less than 10 hours). My doubt is, if it is even reasonable to participate in the 10km event at all, because, even if I swim leisurely, it will always take me more than 3 hours and will definitely tax my body... Can you give any advice, on how to train/taper for these events? I am currently training 4 or 5 times a week: 2 or 3 fast paced sessions of about 2Km on a master squad, 1 session of 3Km on a thriathlon club and a longer session (4 to 5Km) (Red Mist Set) on my own. CSS (on 25m pool) is 1:40.

Adam Young said...

Hi Paulo,

Yes I'd be tempted to not do the 10km the week before... If you feel you could cruise through it at a steady pace then it would be OK but from the sounds of it, it would take something out of you so I would give it a miss...

There's no parallel 5km race at the same event?


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