What you should or should not before a competition
WHEN ALLEN IVERSON WAS CRITICIZED for missing practice after the Philadelphia 76ers were eliminated from the National Basketball Association playoffs in 2002, he lashed out at reporters. “We’re talking about practice,” he said. “Not the game that I go out there and die for and play every game like it’s my last, but we’re talking about practice, man. How silly is that?” Although Iverson’s attitude leaves something to be desired, it hints at one of the ingredients shared by great athletes: the ability to rise to the occasion in competition.
If you prepare for a game or race in the same way that you prepare for your usual workouts, you won’t be well-rested enough to maximize your performance.
On the other hand, you shouldn’t try new foods, sleep habits, or training techniques right before a competition. By fine-tuning these elements and developing a familiar routine, you can give yourself an edge over your competitors when it counts and elevate your game (not practice).
How should I adjust my training in the final days before a competition?
In general, the fitter you are, the better you’ll perform in any athletic contest. As a result, many beginners try to pack in as much training as possible in the final days before a race—hoping, perhaps, to make up for skipped sessions in previous months. But this is one kind of test you can’t cram for. Every training session you do stresses your body, causing it to adapt in response—eventually. But this doesn’t happen instantly, so sessions in the last week or two just add to your fatigue without boosting your fitness. It’s not a good idea to stop training entirely, though, since you need to keep reinforcing the needed patterns of muscle movement. Instead, most athletes perform a “taper” in which training is gradually reduced, leading up to the competition in a way that maximizes fitness and minimizes fatigue.
The chief training variables that you can play with in endurance sports are volume, frequency, and intensity: how far you go, how often, and how hard. You can reduce your training all at once with a “step” taper or gradually cut back with a “progressive” taper. To evaluate these options, Laurent Bosquet of the University of Montreal and his colleagues assembled 182 studies on tapering in runners, swimmers, and cyclists and combined the most rigorous studies into one giant data set. The conclusion: the most effective taper involves a progressive reduction in training volume of 41 to 60 percent over a period of 8 to 14 days. You shouldn’t change how often or how fast you do your workouts—just make them shorter.
There are a few caveats, Bosquet points out. First, the individual response to tapering can differ greatly: “Some athletes need as few as three or four days to dissipate fatigue, while others need three to four weeks,” he says. This also depends on your level of training: if you’re running only three times a week, your taper might simply consist of resting for the final two days before a race. A more subtle limitation is that studies tend to stick to tried-and-true tapering techniques, since it’s hard to find enough competitive athletes willing to risk their season by trying a researcher’s untested tapering scheme. For instance, theoretical models have predicted that resting in anticipation of a major competition, then ramping the training load back up again just before the race would actually be more effective than a straightforward taper. Bosquet is experimenting with this technique with athletes he coaches, but it has yet to be studied in a full-fledged trial.
Team sports are more difficult to analyze because success depends on so many different factors, and because high levels of performance need to be maintained over many weeks during playoff seasons. But the same principles of balancing the benefits of training with the risks of fatigue apply. Leading up to the 2002 World Cup, Swedish researchers recruited 11 top-notch European soccer teams (including Manchester United, Arsenal, AC Milan, Juventus, and Real Madrid) to monitor the training and playing load of their players. The data showed that the players who went on to underperform at the World Cup had played an average of 12.5 matches during the final 10 weeks of the season, while the players who exceeded expectations had played only nine matches—a clear sign that some form of tapering helped players get rid of fatigue and play their best on the biggest stage.
There’s also a psychological component: reducing training makes some athletes feel anxious and lose confidence. The 2007 NCAA cross-country running champion, Josh McDougal of Liberty University, raised eyebrows by admitting that he had run a staggering 110 miles in the final week before his big win, a mere 10 percent reduction from his highest mileage. A more conventional taper the year before had produced a disappointing result: “Last year, I ran 48 miles the week of nationals, and my legs just felt terrible,” he said after the race. “I just run well off training hard.” That’s why Bosquet recommends using the results of his analysis as a starting point, and then adjusting the parameters based on your experiences. Like McDougal, you’ll eventually find a formula that gets you to the start line feeling both confident and well-rested.
Should I have sex the night before a competition?
The debate over whether pre-competition sex helps or hurts athletic performance tends to be argued with clichés rather than scientific studies. The conventional wisdom was articulated by Mickey Goldmill, the hard-nosed trainer in the original Rocky movie: “Women weaken legs.” Legendary New York Yankees manager Casey Stengel took a more conciliatory stance: “It’s not the sex that wrecks these guys, it’s staying up all night looking for it.”
If you’re looking for advice that has been tested in the lab, your options are much more limited. Samantha McGlone and Ian Shrier of McGill University found only three relevant studies of morning-after prowess in a comprehensive review of the literature published in the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine in 2000. One measured grip strength in married male athletes, either after sex the night before or after at least six days of abstinence, and found no difference. A similar study at Colorado State University looked at a wider range of indicators including reaction time, stair-climbing, and balance, again with no apparent effect. Finally, a treadmill test of subjects who had been randomly assigned to either have sex or abstain 12 hours before the test found no effect on aerobic power and two other variables.
Given that a “normal” bout of sex burns energy equivalent to climbing just two flights of stairs, the lack of effect is not surprising. The review also exposes some major gaps in our knowledge. For instance, the studies were only on men—the question of whether women’s legs are weakened doesn’t appear to even arise in the literature. And those gaps haven’t been filled in the decade since the review appeared, Shrier says.
Physiological changes are only part of the equation, though. Sex undoubtedly affects mood, and changes in traits such as aggression could influence performance. But sports psychologists believe that the optimal state of mental arousal is very personal. Some athletes need to be psyched up, and others need to be calmed down in order to perform at their best. That means that there likely isn’t a definitive answer that applies to everyone—which leaves the final word to McGlone, who went on to be the top Canadian triathlete at the 2004 Olympics and is now one of the top Ironman triathletes in the world. “All I can advise is, before a big race, stick with your usual routine, whatever that may be,” she says, adding a note of Stengel-esque caution: “Just try to get a good night’s sleep.”