Sharpen, Don't Taper

The author, fit and sharp, at Challenge Atlantic city in 2014, where he finished 3rd

The author, fit and sharp, at Challenge Atlantic city in 2014, where he finished 3rd

By Chris Boudreaux

“Taper time!  Time to put the legs up and relax till race day!”
“The hay is in the barn!”
“Last long run done! Time to chill…#tapertime”

How often do you see (or say) something along those lines in the last few weeks before a big race, like an Ironman or a marathon?  Pretty much all the time, especially if you’re on twitter and follow a bunch of other distance athletes.  And it’s not that they are completely wrong.  Of course, if you’ve been doing a big training block leading into a major event, you will reduce the training load.  And there will be a focus on rest and recovery and making sure you’re 100% on race day.  But there’s a key word there many of us miss- FOCUS. 

There are a ton of articles and opinions on an ideal taper leading into events, but I’m sorry, over the years I’ve seen tons of different ways to approach a race as far as the % of workout reduction, specific workouts, etc…that have all worked.  I’m not saying that there isn’t good, bad, great ways to taper, but I think the mental focus during that time is the most important.

When you think of a “taper," we think of down time, less work, more rest, basically a little off-season.  But what happens when you take your off-season break?  You won’t lose a ton of fitness over a few weeks, but try to go run a great track workout in the middle of November or December a month after your last race…Not fun, right?  There’s some physical sluggishness, but it’s overwhelmingly mental.  Your body and your mind are just not ready to work like that.  You’ve told your body that we’re resting, and guess what? That’s exactly what it wants to do.  So when we do the same thing in the last 2 to 3 weeks before our most important race of the year, why are we surprised when we feel flat and sluggish and “off” on race day?

It’s not that exact of a science to be already to go for a 8-17 hour event.  You just don’t need to be that perfect.  You need sharpness, but not as much physical sharpness as if you were running the 100meters (or even the 5-10k).  You need to be healthy, engaged, and be ready to work.  Think Sharpening VS Tapering.

When you think about sharpening over the last few weeks, you think of more focus, more attention to detail, more time spent preparing for the event.  So while that includes a workload reduction, that doesn’t include less preparation and attention to detail then what you’ve done over this 8-12 week block to prepare you.  You should get dressed the same, warmup the same, eat properly, everything you’d do for that huge ride or run a few weeks back.  Total focus and concentration on the task at hand.  Sharp. Focused. Ready to give 100%.  So even your 20 minute run w/ 30 second pickups has the same level of focus and attention that the 2 hour run with Ironman intervals did.

When you sharpen, everything you do over those last few days or weeks is preparing your mind and body for the task at hand.  When you feel like you’re resting and relaxing for 2 weeks, then asking your mind and body to be “on” for a huge event, it’s a recipe for disaster.  Use that time to be fully prepared, and then “taper” into your off season, the real time to relax and check out.