Race prep: the basics

You’ve trained for months for a race, putting in hours of hard work and you want to deliver your best on the day; but what’s the optimal way to do it? Everyone has their own opinions and approaches but here are our thoughts. Backed up with copious amounts of trial and error and a sprinkling of science!

The type of race you’re doing will make a difference to your preparation but the general principles are the same, and hopefully you will get some help from coaches and other experienced paddlers. When thinking about the build up to a race, you can break it down into several phases, possibly starting a year or more before the race, but here we are going to look at the last week.

The week before

In the run up to an important race you want a period of easier training so that you don’t go into the race tired. This is known as a taper. Exactly how much you need to taper depends on the race, if you’re just doing a local club marathon race then you shouldn’t be resting for a whole week, one rest day just before is probably enough. This is because it’s more important to get a full amount of training in so you go faster months and years in the future. However, for more important races it is important to go into the race without being tired, and ideally having your form peak for the race.

Rest is important! You can’t make yourself go faster in the week before a race but you can definitely make yourself go slower. It almost certainly worth putting in a complete rest day 1-5 days before regatta. The exact sessions in a taper period can vary quite a bit, but hopefully you have a coach or some experienced training partners helping you set a program but the main point is to be reducing your training volume, so that the sessions are easier to recover from. We would strongly suggest reducing the volume but not the intensity of sessions as this allows you to keep your speed and keep you feeling sharp. For instance, if you normally have 8 * 4 minutes on a Monday you could reduce that to 4 * 4 minutes with 4 * 1 minutes at the end. Adding some extra speed work and starts might be a good idea in the taper period. This week is also a good time to get out in any crew boats you are racing.

With regular races, such as regattas every four weeks, it can be useful to plan your training blocks so that you have an easy week in the run up to the race and then, after a couple of easy days to recover, you get back into a 3 week block of training again building up to the next race. We find that having a set taper week before regatta allows us to go into a race feeling confident that we are as fresh as possible. The most important part of a taper is to make you feel as good as possible, so feel free to play round and experiment.

A different, but equally important part of your pre-race week, is mental preparation. A lot of good athletes visualise the race, how they will feel and the desired outcome. This isn’t for everyone, and it is much easier to do for a sprint race than a marathon! Personally, for regattas we like to write a list of all the races we are doing with lane numbers and timings. This means we have a clear plan of how the day will unfold and can start planning meal times.

The day before

The day before a race is an important day and one that’s full of decisions that can affect your performance. Some people like the day completely off paddling (or any type of training) with the theory being that you won’t be putting any stress on your body so you will have the most energy to recover from any tiredness you have left. Lots of paddlers say they feel best doing this, so it is definitely worth trying out to see how it works for you, but many (ourselves included) prefer to go for a fairly easy paddle the day before the race, and take the day before that off from training.

Most sports scientists advise against having a rest day on the day before a race. Paddling the day before keeps you moving around and prevents you from stiffening up. It also allows you to get “the feel” of paddling back, which is something that many people struggle with after a rest day. A gentle session should be really quite easy to recover from. It can also be a great chance to paddle on the course before the race which is always nice. For marathons this is a great chance to explore the course and work out the best racing lines. Although it can be really useful paddling on a regatta lake, especially if you’re not used to it as it feels quite different from paddling on a sheltered river.

A typical session the day before might be: paddle gently for 5 minutes, 30 strokes every 2-3 minutes at 60%, 70%, 80% then couple of 2-3 minute efforts at about 1000m cruising pace and then 2-3 starts to finish. All of which will take less than half an hour and should leave you feeling sharp.

In the evening you should be resting up (not out playing football with everyone from the club or on the beers with the rest of the team) and relaxing, but there’s not much to be done. Foam rolling and stretching could be a good idea, however don’t go wild if you don’t normally stretch. Make sure you get a decent dinner, ideally high in carbohydrates as this is the primary source of fuel for the next day. You might need to spend some time making up drinks bags, if you are racing a marathon, or doing some other bits of preparation.

Nottingham regatta course

Photo Dan James

The day of the race

Things will vary a bit depending on when your (first) race is but the principles are the same. You want to get up in time to have some breakfast and move around a bit to wake up. Something that you know sits well with you is best, maybe something like porridge or a home-made smoothie with fruit, oats and nut butter. We would always recommend sticking to what you know, and don’t eat anything you wouldn’t normally have.

We like to go for a “pre warm up” paddle about 90 minutes before the race. This is intended to loosen you off, wake your body up and reduce the amount of warm up you need to do before the race. This is generally a pretty similar session to the one the day before, but probably a bit shorter. This shouldn’t tire you out, you should feel better when you get off than when you got on! Now is also a good time to take your boat to boat control and check it is up to weight, and if it’s not you’ve got an hour or so to find some weights. Sometimes you might not be able to get on the course (though there’s normally some water nearby you can use instead in these cases) or it might be so horrendously cold, wind, and choppy that it’s not worth going out and getting cold… so make your own judgement on the day. Now is also a good time to check over your boat and make sure nothing came loose on the journey up.

After the pre warm up there’s a bit of spare time to relax a bit and chat to other people who are racing (they might have raced already and have some tips) but don’t get too distracted. Now is probably the time to get a coffee if you like some caffeine before racing, as it takes 45 minutes to get to maximum levels in your system 1 2.

About half an hour before your race you should be starting to think about the race; where do you need to finish to qualify, who is in you race and the other heats, what lane are you in, have you got a number board, how much kit do you need on, do you know where your race vest is, have you had enough (but not too much) to drink, do you need the toilet, all of these kinds of things.

Some people like to listen to music to cut out some of the distractions and get them psyched up, even putting headphones on without any music playing can be helpful. You may want to visualise you race (but that would be a whole other article).

Race day outline, example for a regatta:

7:00 wake up, have breakfast
9:00- 9:20 pre warm up paddle
Put dry kit on

9:50 Start to think about the race, check you have number board etc, go to toilet
10:10 Get on to warm up
10:30 Race, heats
10:35-10:45 Warm down
Put dry kit on
11:40 Start to think about the race, check you have number board etc, go to toilet
12:00 Race, final
12:05 – 12:15 Warm down

At a sprint regatta you may well have several, often up to six or seven races during the day. Obviously things depend on how big the gaps between races are but you should be trying to get a bit of food and drink in (often harder than it sounds if you have races every 90-120 minutes for most of the day) and if you have a long enough gap it’s a good idea to try and get a small lunch in at some point, something that won’t make you feel sick paddling later and will be digested reasonably quick, e.g. pasta or a jacket potato with some protein like meat or eggs. Sipping on an energy drink (Lucozade, SIS, High5 etc) can be useful, but try to avoid slamming back masses of sugar during the day! If it’s warm then you might need extra fluid and electrolytes as well as sugar.

After the race(s)

Often you will be doing several races in a weekend, especially at a sprint regatta but even at marathon events like internationals or national championships, so it is important to try and recover as much as you can for the next day.

Once you’ve got your breath back from the race, go for a warm down paddle, a gentle paddle for about 10-15 minutes (you’ll feel a lot better later for having done it). Recovery shakes can be a useful option, and are easy to take with you to races (don’t discount the value of having something easy to have after a race) but the key is to get some carbohydrates and protein in quickly after you finish your racing for the day.

Try and relax in the evening and get a decent amount of food down (try for something reasonably healthy, an all you can eat Chinese might make you feel a bit iffy the next morning!). Stretching and or foam rolling will probably make you less stiff the next morning. Finally, try and get a good night’s sleep ready to do it all again tomorrow.

If you aren’t racing again the next day then you can probably be a bit more lax about the post race recovery, but most of the time you will be getting straight back to training a day or two later so really you should still be trying to eat well and look after yourself.

There’s lots of different options and variables but hopefully you will be doing lots of races throughout your time paddling so you should try out a variety of different approaches and see what works best for you. In particular it is worth trying different warm ups, different nutrition and whether or not you take the day before a race as a rest day. Finally… good luck.

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