Starting an A-race or event with fresh legs after a taper phase of training is essential, but it comes with a risk: you may be digging yourself a hole in the first hour and not realise it. Having the mental awareness of this is crucial to pace yourself optimally.
So, why are fresh legs dangerous?
The objective of a taper phase (typically two weeks before your event) is to allow your body enough time to adapt to the training stress and load you’ve been putting it under – to get fitter. If you follow a structured training plan, you probably flirt with the line between training fatigue and overreaching most of the time. This means that your legs are almost always tired when you train and you become accustomed to that feeling of fatigue. Your sense of effort is calibrated to that level of fatigue you are used to experiencing. When your freshness increases as a result of your taper, and your fitness adapts, that very same fatigue disappears and the same physical effort or pace then *feels easier*! This means that when pushing as hard as you are used to, you are likely to be pushing harder (more watts) from a physical perspective than normal. Your heart rate is probably higher, and your power output is too.
If you race with a power meter or heart rate monitor this is less of an issue as you are more likely to know when you are flirting with the red zone and then tap off. Without that data in front of you (and let’s be honest, the starts at events are so chaotic you are unlikely to be focusing on your numbers) the only point of reference you’ve got is your Rate of Perceived Effort (RPE), or how hard the pace feels.
So if you are pushing yourself harder than normal because your freshness makes the same pace feel easier, you are more likely to be stepping into the red without realising it. Being aware (this is the mental tip: awareness) of this tendency to dig deeper than normal because of fresh legs could be the very thing that helps you perform optimally at your next race. While you may want to give it proper stick in the start, remember that letting a group of runners or riders go off the front while you preserve yourself is a better racing tactic than blowing 30mins later. Personally, I’ve seen too many recreational athletes try and stick it with the Pros up front and then blow shortly after. I guess the thing is that you feel ok there because of your fresh legs, but the reality is that you are probably burying yourself without realising it.