After completing my last pre-World Cup über-long workout on Saturday--a reasonably fast 40k--it's taper time. I hope to get in one more 30k and a couple of hard 20-25k walks, but it's time now to cut back on the training and focus my full energy on acclimating to the conditions.
I learned a good lesson in 1996 when I had the 2nd fastest time going into the Olympic Trials and somehow found a way to finish dead last. I set myself up to do so by getting myself into amazing shape by training at 8,700 ft. of altitude at the Mexican Olympic Training Center, but utterly failing to acclimate to the conditions under which I would be racing at the Trials in Atlanta. Ironically, I had been living just outside of Atlanta, but I felt I needed to do something beyond what my training partners were doing so I took the chance. I was training with some of the best walkers in the world at the CDOM (El Centro del Deportes Olimpicos Mexicanos,) but the cool, dry mornings in Mexico City, and the blood-thickening effects of the high altitude training, left me poorly acclimated to Atlanta's heat and humidity.
Ever since ending up in the medical tent for two hours after the ''96 Trials I've been fairly fanatical about researching my upcoming race conditions and trying to replicate them as closely as possible in my training. With the upcoming IAAF World Cup of Racewalking 50k in Chihuahua Mexico, the name of the game is heat and altitude acclimatization. Heat is easy. I just got off the treadmill, having completed 12k in an unventilated room wearing long sleeves and a winter hat. I have a clinic in Austin, TX this weekend and the locals will no doubt be scratching their heads as they see me buzzing around Town Lake in a jacket, tights, winter hat and gloves. Heat is easy. Altitude is a bit trickier. In a past life I would "simply" spend 3-4 weeks in Albuquerque, but with a wife and new baby at home those days are long gone. Luckily, my brother John the elite duathlete has an altitude-simulation tent that he's let me borrow for the month. I have no idea if the thing works. I mean there's a motor that's making noise and there seems to be some manner of air being pumped into the tent, but whether it's any different from the air in the rest of the house is anyone's guess. But I'm all for the placebo effect, so don't let on if you have any information that John is pulling my leg with this thing. I'm also a little skeptical that sleeping in the tent (to the extent that I am sleeping, with an 11-month-old in the house!) will be anywhere near as effective as actually training at real altitude. But the point is you gotta try.
Like I said, the altitude is tricky, but there are other things you can do to get ready for the conditions under which you will be racing. A little reconnaissance will usually reveal the likely weather conditions, elevation profile, the event's sports drink and gel sponsors, race time, and other tidbits that will help you to be at your best on race day. Head to the race web site and do some research, then try to replicate race conditions as closely as possible in your taper weeks. Train at the same time of day (taking into account time zone changes,) on similar surfaces and try to replicate the atmospheric conditions when possible. If the race is local, do some of your training on the course, or parts of the course, if possible--not just for the physical benefits, but for the psychological benefits. There's nothing like having real visuals to work with when doing pre-race visualization exercises!
There's really not a lot you can do in the last couple of weeks before a race in terms of fitness gains by doing more hard training. The best use of your time is to rest up by cutting back on your mileage; do a fair amount of training at your expected race pace; STRETCH to maintain, or even make gains in flexibility; and finally, do anything you can to acclimate to the conditions. And in that vein, I'm off to bed, sleeping tonight in Chihuahua. Or perhaps La Paz...