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Cramming for a competition is extremely common. In many cases, races creep up on people and the training they planned to do never quite gets done. For others the preparation was done but the imminent race stirs up fear which gets used as motivation to chase last minute fitness gains. It is relevant to both disorganized and extremely diligent athletes.
It is naïve to think last minute training is a waste of time. In theory a taper block could be considered last minute training. In fact, a taper block should be how last minute training should be. Training stress and physiological adaptations are largely defined by time course. Some adaptations require volume and time to develop, others are quite rapid. The general consensus is that high intensity low volume work is actually advised in the immediate preparation prior to a big event. Enzymatic function is better maintained and there is a mental familiarization factor which can be beneficial for more intense events. The key is that there is relatively low fatigue, and the athlete is fully recovered for the event. This recovery is much more extensive than the recovery between training sessions.
Put simply, if an event is imminent and time is in short supply, then short time course methods should be used. High intensity and race pace intervals are advised. They need to be organised in such a way that fatigue is manageable and as little muscle damage as possible is induced. This would mean that short intervals with relatively long rest are the best option. Sessions should also be relatively short. These are exactly the same type of sessions that would be utilized in a taper. The same goal is present. An athlete is looking to maintain exposure to race intensity, while “over” recovering to achieve supercompensation. For an athlete who has completed more extensive training blocks you would expect to see greater efficiency and capacity to be present entering this phase. They have banked training and now they are priming it for a performance. The process of the last block is the same as a last minute attempt to “gain” fitness. The week prior to an event in either case looks to capitalise on what you have rather than actually build any new fitness.
What should you do
To ensure best chances for success the goal should be to peak on the day of the race. This means you need to have maintained top level fitness and arrive in a fresh state in order to fully utilise the fitness foundations built. For a well trained athlete this is the icing on the cake but can also be a misleading period. Often if a taper is done well they will have the perception of having extra energy to train in the week or weeks prior to competition. This may mislead them into completing tougher sessions or train more regularly to squeeze the last bit of fitness out of the time available. In reality they are probably only creating extra fatigue which will hinder them. They have banked a lot of training and this phase must only be used to maintain and prime. The temptation to build more should be resisted.
For those who are less prepared things should not be dissimilar. If the preparation in the months prior are absent then they will not make up for it in a week. They must assume a similar position to those who have trained and simply focus on being primed and fresh for the day. Whatever fitness base they have will not change significantly in a short space of time. So they must instead focus on getting the most out of what is there.
To cram or not to cram.
Depending on your perspective the last week is always about using the last days to prepare. Cramming implies exceeding what would be normal volume or intensity. In nearly all cases less is more in terms of effectiveness. A fresh athlete will always be in a better position to perform. Instead of a focus on training volume, the focus should shift to recovery. Every session should be planned in such a way that recovery takes priority. Longer rests and smaller volumes of work help induce less acute and chronic fatigue. Intensity can be kept relative if recovery is put first over volume. For example, 5 repetitions of 5 mins at race pace with 3mins recovery may be switched to 3 repetitions of 3 minutes at race pace with 5 mins rest.
The take home message here is that a lot can be done in the week before a race to promote a good performance. The challenge is finding a balance that allows you to facilitate performance without inducing fatigue. The layout and structure of the training for these weeks should be planned on an individual basis. It should depend on the fitness level of the athlete and the type of competition. If done so it can be beneficial but one must be realistic with expectations. Approach it from the right perspective rather than in a panic and it can make a huge difference.
If you are concerned about the last minute preparations for an event then do not hesitate to contact us. The taper can be very difficult to structure with pre-race excitement present. Here’s a link to a previous article which may give you some ideas.https://hamiltonsport.com/2019/03/how-to-taper-for-competition/
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