5 race-week tips from our pro-level triathlete

Friday, May 19, 2017. Author Pleuni Hooijman Ph.D.

 Pleuni Hooijman-race day

As athletes in endurance sports, race week is the most exciting and challenging of our entire prep period.  However, all the extra time gained from lower training volumes during the tapering period makes us mental milkshakes, prone to under or over-thinking,  just when we need to be calm and in the zone.  With too much free time, we’re inevitably thinking:

Have I trained enough? Have I over-trained? Should I memorize the bike course to plan the fastest lines? Is all my gear organized?

Even if we're relaxed when arriving at the race location, other athletes can make us nervous, causing us to doubt ourselves and our preparation process. They are flying past the race village on their time-trial machines, wearing compression socks, and looking impossibly hard to beat.  I know what you're thinking: They’ve all trained more than me.  They’ve all trained less than me, but still look better.  Their bikes are cooler.  Their helmets are more aero....  Just stop it!!!

Here are my  5 “Do’s and Don’ts” to keep you on track during race week

1 – Don’t: Train hard

The window of opportunity for building your fitness has closed by now. It is also too late to explore the 180km bike course or to test if you still run as fast on your 10 x 1km intervals. All this will give you is tired legs. Allowing your body to rest takes as much discipline as all the hours of hard training.

Do: Reduce volume to 50-60%, preserve frequency, and add a fartlek session

Your training volume should be reduced to 50-60% while keeping about the same training frequency, giving yourself 1 extra rest day and including one or two fartlek sessions (short, varied tempo training). 24 hours before the race, include a short session at low intensity to check your race gear, go through your race plan, stimulate the nervous system, improve blood flow to the muscles and most importantly: get rid of the anxiety and relax the body, giving you a good night of sleep and the right tone in your muscles and your mind.

2 – Don’t: Over-eat

It’s a myth that you should carbo-load for a week to have your glycogen stores filled up. Since your training volume is drastically reduced, you won’t need the extra calories and you’re likely to gain weight by putting on fat. Especially those with the AA allele of the FTO gene may risk doing this – check the FitnessGenes genetic test to see if you’re genetically predisposed to overeating.

Do: Adjust caloric intake to training volume

Instead of loading, you should actually slowly lower your total caloric intake during your taper week while maintaining the percentage of carbs consumed. From 7 days out to 2 days prior to your race, pay attention to a varied, high fiber, and healthy diet rich in vegetables and legumes, keeping fat intake low and your body well hydrated (pay attention to electrolytes as well!). The day before the race is the most important, where you must make sure you’re really cutting down on fiber and fat, and maybe eat a bit extra overall. The day before a race is the only occasion where I recommend regular white pasta instead of wholemeal and staying away from legumes – especially for those with a poor genetic insulin score on their FitnessGenes results. Go for a fresh tomato sauce instead of creamy white sauce, and have an extra sandwich for lunch.

3 –Don’t: Ignore race-day details

Once I had already started the swim of a triathlon while my coach was speeding home to get my cycling shoes that I had forgotten. Two speeding tickets later, and 10 seconds before I got out of the water, he miraculously returned! But I know I can’t rely on luck all the time, so from that day on I have my golden checklist. It’s a waste to let your stress levels go sky high about essential things you may forget. Use the adrenaline to race hard, not to worry about your gear.

Do: have your checklist ready

Make a checklist of your essential pre-race, during race, and post-race equipment. Do this at least a week before the race so that you have plenty of time to get the things you need like new tires, pedal cleats, socks or to fix a hole in your wetsuit. Some technical fabrics wear out more quickly than you think.

4-Don’t: booze with your friends

“Well, considering I had a terrible hangover, I’m happy I even finished!” It may sound obvious that this is not the way to go, but I can recall plenty examples of my male friends starting a marathon after a night of 10 pints. Strangely, people who trained really hard are frequently doing this.

It takes courage to admit you worked hard for a race and to try to achieve your full potential. Hiding behind self-made excuses is cowardly. Since we have a lot of extra time during taper weeks, I have also found it difficult not to schedule a lot of dinners and other social events with friends.  However,  I remind myself of all the hours spent training and realize that it is better to catch up with friends after the race, and not to let temptation get in the way of my hard work.

Do: Race with no regrets

Think of all the training you’ve put in, so don’t let fear of failure steal your chance of a PB. Even if chances are small you’ll be performing well, there is nothing better than looking back proudly on one of your races. There will be a time in your life where you won’t be able to do what you’re doing now, so don’t make excuses and give it 100%.  Be smart,  put your money where your mouth is, go to bed on time, and nail that PB!

5-Don’t: Eat eggs Benedict for breakfast on race day

Another common mistake is having a hard-to-digest breakfast, leading to stomach cramps or even throwing up during a race.

Do: Eat a bagel with jam

Eat an easily-digestible breakfast such as banana or white bread with jam about 3 hours before start time. You may take a gel 30 minutes before the start and nip a bit of sports drink, but that should be it. Use your FitnessGenes result to time your coffee correctly to get the most out of the performance enhancing effect of caffeine.

I wish you all the best for a successful race.

Dr. Pleuni Hooijman is a pro-level triathlete. If you enjoyed this article, please read her other blogs:


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3 easy vegetarian recipes for athletes on the go

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The physiology of recovery

The physiology of movement

Foam rolling and genetics

VO2 max-performance and genetics


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