By Sally Garrard | Advanced Sports Dietitian | 6 minute read
It’s the mark of a great coach that recognises recovery is what will bring out your best performance. These same coaches will go to great lengths to make sure that your training load has peaks and troughs, and that you progressively overload your system, and then recover.
And we trust our coaches. They ask us to work hard, and we’re generally we’re pretty good at it. However the same mindset that takes us to the start line of an ironman, a marathon or any manner of the adventure and endurance races out there, can also be our undoing. In taper week, when given a rest day, instead of thinking “Oh you’ve given me the day off, I’ll sleep in and do some light mobility/stretching/foam-roller work with my spare time” the thought tends to be “Oh you’ve given me the day off? I’ll sleep in and pop in a little run when I wake up then, thanks”. And a little run is 20km…
So firstly, taper week doesn’t end up being the taper the coach had intended. But at the same time, the athlete still thinks that because they are in taper week, and they feel their training load is non-existent, they clamp down on food intake enormously, because “well, I’m barely training”.
I’m not talking to every athlete here. There are athletes who go to the other end of the spectrum in taper week, and end up eating way too much because they’ve got more time on their hands, and the high training load that previously dampened their appetite is now gone, and they start eating for Australia. If you don’t identify with the prior situation (i.e. clamping down on food when training load reduces) there is probably no point reading on because this article doesn’t apply to you. It might apply to your training partner though 😉 The content of this article applies to those who find it difficult to switch off their hard-training genes, and to those who put serious control on their eating habits.
I’ve witnessed athletes getting through ridiculously high training loads with very small amounts of food, so it can be done. You’ll get through training, you’ll get to the start line, and it’s highly likely you’ll finish the race. You might even run a PB. But were are you capable of more? It might not be that you were capable of a faster time on race day (too many variables!), but you can bet you would’ve been capable of being a happier person in your training block if you allowed yourself a little more fuel. You wouldn’t have bitten your partner’s head off when they asked you to put on (yet another) load of washing, when all you wanted to do was flake on the couch. You wouldn’t have picked up all the head colds that made their way through the squad. You wouldn’t have felt the pinch so early in those brick sessions, or the heavy legs so early in the long training runs.
But you might not identify with these above scenarios at all, because you’ve always held a tight restriction on your food, and training how you do, is your norm. Consider there is a new level of normal to find. Consider you don’t realise what it feels like to REALLY train with good energy stores on board. I’m not saying training will be a walk in the park, but I am saying you could reap more rewards from the effort you put in.
So how are we fixing this? If this is your taper week as you read this, I wouldn’t suggest you change a thing. There is too much risk involved in changing eating habits significantly when it occurs close to your A-race. The entire solution will be looking at your training week fuel, and that is a matter for 20-weeks out from the race, not 1 week out.
What I can suggest is that you keep your food the same as you usually would in a regular training week. Resist the urge to drop it back. Sure you won’t be having the gels, Vegemite sandwiches and sports drinks that you would usually chow down on in 5-hr sessions, but your baseline food should not be reduced. Oh and do what your coach asks: you have permission to drop your training load!
Let’s circle back to the longer-term solution though: Your true potential in the sport will be reached when you learn how to fuel your 20-week training block. Everyone’s base nutrition is different, so the problem that we are fixing will be different for each athlete. For some it will mean improving recovery strategies and ensuring a decent high-protein meal after a tough training session. Or bumping up athlete fats to reduce your overall inflammation. For others it will mean upping the (dreaded) carbohydrate.
If you were on board with what I was saying until you saw the word carbohydrate, then this advice absolutely applies to you. If the idea of carbs make you bristle, we have a problem. And that problem will loosely fall in to one of 2 categories…
a) you’ll be chronically under-fuelled and under-recovered, and experience the myriad of issues associated with this, or
b) you’ll be making up for the day-time carb-phobia by ploughing through sugars late at night.
Oh but they are only the natural sugars. “Yep, just honey and maple syrup, that’s all I have in my treats!” Sure, but that is still sugar, and while I am a massive fan of nutritious treats, when they are coming in en-masse as a result of a deficiency of quality, complex carb earlier in the day, we are looking down the barrel of creating eating behaviours that (at best) don’t set you up for a good night sleep, and (at worst) don’t set you up for long-term healthy eating behaviours.
I’m not advocating old-school advice of a pasta party before every long session, and I definitely don’t want you joining in with those who sit at the cafe and undo their hard work by ploughing through a big breakfast backed up with an oversized cold-pressed juice. But I will stand by the fact that complex carbs need to be a part of your training nutrition and that you shouldn’t feel guilty about having them. Some will need more, some will need less, but there is not an athlete on this planet that can go on zero and create their best performance. NB. The ideal cafe recovery meal? Poached eggs on grain sourdough with a side of avocado, and a milk-based coffee. GF toast if needed!
So where to from here? Start writing down the thoughts you have that are attached to eating the way you are. Can you see some common themes? If you have a lot of thoughts about foods being right or wrong, I’ll put my money on the fact that with a few tweaks to the way you approach your nutrition, you could be training in a head space that is happier and healthier, and will produce a faster race day experience. If you’re not sure, reach out! We are only an email away.