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?
|How should you train through a race season to perform well on the big occasions?|
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 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 as 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 do need to back things off so that the normal level of training fatigue goes and we are fresh for best performance in the race. This backing off of training is called "tapering" and for most 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 do taper effectively.)
Races As Training
Races are a lot of fun and to compete is the primary motivation of many athletes. They're 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 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.
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:
11th June - Charity Pool Swimathon
25th June - 1500m open water race
9th July - Olympic distance triathlon
That looks like a 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 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's 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 your best performance. For these races you taper fully.
"B" races are there, you want to enjoy them and go 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:
"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 your A races and some athletes even find 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 around 5-12 weeks works well. A few B and C races in the build up to each will help you fine tune your racing and prepare 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 and train normally between races as you would in the off season:
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