Most racewalkers, through trial and error, eventually settle on a training schedule that works best for them. Unfortunately, many of these same walkers become bewildered in the final weeks and days before an important race, either training too much or too little. Another common problem is failure to specifically prepare the body and mind for conditions they will likely experience during competition. This article may give some guidance to these athletes.
One of the most important, yet least utilized training tools available to the racewalker is acclimatization. Acclimatizing means subjecting and adapting the body to environmental conditions similar to those that will be experienced during important races. The first step in an effective acclimatization is reconnaissance. Find out as much as you possibly can about the race course, likely weather conditions and any other variables that may affect your race. Will the competition be at sea level or altitude? Indoors or out? Are the conditions likely to be hot and humid? Is the course hilly or flat? Road or track? Will the race begin at 6:00 am or 5:00 pm? Athletes are often told to ignore these factors because they affect every athlete equally. This is absolutely false! The body is adaptable to many deleterious environmental factors, so the prepared athlete will gain an advantage over his non-acclimated competitors.
For better or worse, whatever training you've done in the months before a race will rise to the top on race day--but only if you allow it to. You must have faith in your fitness going into a race--don't undermine your training by hammering yourself in the last week. Additional fitness gains will be minimal, and they will be overshadowed by the detriment of going into the race fatigued. There is such a thing as "training through" less-important races, but doing so will sacrifice your best possible performance in these races in exchange for higher-quality training for future, presumably more important competitions. If you want to perform at your absolute peak now, however, you must be rested. But what does "rested" mean?
Assuming that you have trained rigorously leading up to an important race, a taper is a way of resting both physically and mentally before an important competition without losing any of the fitness gained during the preceding months of training. This does not mean a complete layoff from training. Quite the contrary, an effective taper is characterized by high intensity training, albeit at lower volume than in the previous weeks. This has traditionally meant maintaining much the same schedule in the final two weeks before the race, except with a 1/3 to 1/2 reduction in both the number of intervals, and in total weekly mileage.
Recent research, however, indicates that an even greater reduction in mileage may be beneficial both in the short and the long terms. Owen Anderson, writing in Running Research News, discusses studies with runners who used no taper, a traditional taper, and a taper characterized by drastic reductions in total mileage, and a limited number of short, high-intensity intervals every day in the week leading up to the race.
These intervals--run at slightly faster than 5 kilometer race pace--amounted to 15% of usual weekly mileage in the final week, with enough easy mileage added to ensure sufficient warm ups and cool downs. For racewalkers training 40 miles per week, this would amount to about six miles of intervals in the week before the race. The bulk of these intervals should be completed in the first few days of the taper, with the number of intervals descending through the week. About 800 meters warm up and 800 meters cool down should be incorporated into each workout, increasing total mileage for the week to 13. This may seem like a ridiculously low mileage total for the week, but remember the primary purpose of the taper: Rest!
The group of runners utilizing the very low mileage, high-intensity taper realized a 6% increase in economy over both the regular taperers and the non-taperers. The average time improvement amounted to 29 seconds over 5 kilometers, with every runner in the group improving. Anderson attributed the increase to both the enhanced rest as well as the benefits of the up-tempo running. What does this mean to the racewalker? Such a taper, coupled with copious stretching and rest should mean enhanced flexibility, more economical technique, increased enzymatic activity and glycogen storage in the leg muscles and quite possibly surprisingly fast race times while doing less work!
A typical taper for a 40 mile per week racewalker is as follows:
After a disappointing 6th place finish in the national 20 kilometer championships at Knoxville, Tennessee in June I decided to try the "new" taper before my next two races. The results: a strong second place finish at the U.S. Olympic Festival 20 km three weeks later, and a win at the national 10 kilometer championships at Niagara Falls less than one week after that. In both races my legs felt fresher and faster than they had in Knoxville with no apparent loss in fitness.
Consistently subjecting the body to race-like conditions in training the months before, circadian and environmental acclimatization in the weeks before, and plenty of rest in the days before competition are the keys to reaching your full potential. When tapering, remember that rest, glycogen storage, enzymatic adaptation, and high economy are the goals. Mileage should be reduced to the lowest possible level to ensure that the legs are rested and fully glycogen loaded while still doing a limited number of fast economy intervals. The time for hard mileage has past--the final week should feel very easy, leaving you "chomping" at the bit" for a fast race. If in doubt, always do less! Building endurance and sharpening speed take many months of hard work. Last minute attempts to "catch up" on missed training will only make you tired for the big race. Once you've done your hard training, the "rest" is easy.
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