It's NOT A Taper
It's that time of the training season....the dreaded taper. I say that because it's the part of training most people fear (me included). Screw up the taper, and you just screwed up a year of training.
This year I'm taking a little different approach to my training and so far it's been paying off so hopefully I'll nail the taper and head into my 'A' race feeling well-rested and race ready (shred ready as a friend of mine used to say back in my motocross days).
The first thing I'm doing is ditching the word taper. I don't like it, mainly because it conjures up images of resting and relaxing and just sitting around waiting for race day. That's how I've thought of tapers in the past, and the result is that I tapered too much and lost some fitness going into race day. This year I'm calling it a sharpening period. Yes, my training is tapering down so it's still a taper, but what I'm really doing is sharpening. During a taper, your volume decreases and your intensity increases so you sharpen your skills and go into the race well rested and....well....sharp. In my mind, "taper" makes me want to lay on the couch and "sharpening period" makes me want to workout but be very smart about it and make sure every workout is right on target.
The other thing I'm doing differently this time around is relying more on the numbers. What can I say? I'm an analyst. It's what I do.
But how do I use the numbers better this time than in the past? That's the trick. In the past I've focused mainly on weekly hours and tapering them down as suggested in the many books I've read. That's all well and good, but I tapered too much for too long and while I felt great on race morning I wasn't as fit as I needed to be. De-training had already begun.
I'm going to try to explain this without making it too confusing (for my benefit as well as yours). To start with, I use a piece of software called WKO+ to log all my workouts. From there, I upload them to trainingpeaks.com which is what I use to schedule all my workouts and track my hours and mileage and all that jazz. WKO+ is used for analyzing the data from the cycling and running workouts. WKO+ assigns a Training Stress Score to each workout and with that score I'm able to track my fitness, fatigue and 'freshness' through a chart called the Performance Management Chart:
I know....a little confusing. Basically, the blue line represents my fitness (it's based on the past 6 weeks of training) which has been steadily climbing all year as planned. You can see where it dips in June, which is from my first 'A' race. If it sounds weird that I would lose fitness doing a race, it's because I tapered for that race and rested/recovered for a week afterwards. So my volume was pretty light for about 3 weeks so even though I raced I lost fitness because my training volume (training stress) dropped significantly. Fitness disappears very quickly (I actually did notice the loss of fitness in my early workouts after the race - it wasn't a big loss but enough to make a few workouts disappointing). It's frustrating how quickly fitness fades away.
The pink line represents my fatigue. It takes into account the past 7 days of training so when the pink line jumps up suddenly you can tell that was a period where I increased my volume suddenly (the big jump with the highest peak is the Endurance Nation Training Camp I did in early July - big volume that weekend). The training load becomes heavy and you get tired. Fatigue is especially bad when the pink line is well above the blue line. Basically that means I'm training way above what I'm trained for since the blue line is my fitness and the pink line is my current training load.
Yellow is the Training Stress Balance, the balance between the pink and blue lines. It represents what they call 'freshness.' As the pink line (fatigue) goes down, yellow goes up indicating I'm fresh and ready for a good workout or race.
Now the tricky part...the sharpening period. When you decrease your volume the blue line (fitness) is going to start decreasing. You're losing fitness. You do this in exchange for freshness, because your yellow line will begin moving up and pink (fatigue) will move down. That sounds easy enough, but the trick is finding the right balance which is what I've screwed up in the past. While you may think you want the yellow line as high as possible, you don't. Too high a value is most likely an indication of lost fitness. Likewise, you don't want the blue line to drop too much which is definitely a sign of lost fitness.
I've been reading a lot about sharpening periods lately and they say they work best when preceded by high training stress and when the volume drops off suddenly and exponentially. Two to three weeks is what works best for long races such as marathons and ironmans. I'm doing three weeks (this is week one) although my first week is still very high volume with big weekend workouts. Week two and three is when the volume drops off suddenly, mainly week 3 which is race week.
So how did I screw this up in the past? I rested too much. Last year for Florida, my fitness (blue line) peaked 20 days before the race. By race day it had dropped 19%. Joe Friel (whose training philosophies I follow) recommends no more than a 10% drop. I broke it down by discipline and the results made a lot of sense. I rode well on the bike but felt more fatigue than expected late in the ride. My bike fitness peaked 20 days before the race and dropped 22% by race day. My running fitness dropped 15%.
Yesterday was a really long brick and my numbers going into the workout were right where they should be and I had a great workout. I felt great and never faded, although the sun bearing down on me did start to take its toll but there's not much I can do about the weather.
So what I've been doing is crunching the numbers and I planned my workouts over the next 3 weeks based on training stress score rather than hours. I'm still watching my hours and those are right in line with the recommendations too, but I'm really focusing on making sure my training stress scores are where I need them.
Based on that, my fitness will peak 14 days before the race and will drop 9% by race day. My fatigue will decrease and fall below the blue line and my training stress balance (which Joe Friel recommends being between 10-20 - it's often a negative value - on race day) should be at 19 on race morning. My training stress balance for Florida was 31.4 and it was 31.5 for the Liberty Half Ironman earlier this year which I struggled at.
Yes, I have a spreadsheet.
Although I didn't taper for my big brick this weekend, I did have a recovery week prior so my volume had dropped. My fitness peaked 14 days before this workout and had dropped 10%. My fatigue fell below the blue line to where it represented 75% of the value of the blue line (exactly where it will be on race morning) and my training stress balance was 16.5.
Based on how well my brick went yesterday and where the numbers were going into it, the numbers I'm shooting for on race day make sense.