First off, let me say that tapering is something that is highly individualistic. If you’ve got a method that has worked for you, stick with it. Many of the world’s best athletes have unconventional tapering methods that have been used with great success. Roger Bannister famously rested completely for 4 days before breaking the 4-minute mile. On the other end of the spectrum, Eliud Kipchoge is known to hit 180km+ per week right before a major marathon. This doesn’t mean that either of these methods are the best way of doing things, but rather than they are the best way for that particular athlete.
This article provides a more general guideline for most athletes but there is no guarantee that a particular way of tapering will be the best method for you. The best that you can do is to try a certain method, and make adjustments along the way as you learn more about how your body responds. The more you understand about the how’s and why’s of tapering, the better equipped you are to make these adjustments in an effective manner.
Tapering is often confused with resting; the difference being that while tapering has ‘rest’ as an element of it, it is not the only aspect to be considered when trying to maximize performance for a race. Along with resting, these are some of the main goals of a taper:
- Optimize muscle tension (the ‘spring’ in your step when you run)
- Reduce residual fatigue / increase muscle recovery (essentially a result of rest)
- Minimize stress, maximize mental ‘freshness’
- Maintain the usual rhythm of training to some extent
Muscle tension is quite a detailed topic (a good resource on the topic is given in the link at the bottom of the page), but in simplistic terms we want to manipulate it to give us the optimal ‘spring’ in our legs on race day. If you’ve ever rested a lot before a race and then found your legs feeling completely ‘flat’ on race day – that’s most likely a case of extremely low tension from backing off too much in training.
But how do we manipulate this tension, and what is the optimal tension?
The optimal tension will differ, depending on the type of race. For shorter races, a higher tension. For longer races, a lower tension. In the week or two leading up to the race, we can target specific paces in training that should allow us to alter this tension to an extent (it is far from an exact science). To increase tension quickly, things such as sprints or fast strides (or plyometrics as a non-running alternative) are your best bet. On the other side of things, a slow long run should decrease your muscle tension. If your tension feels just about right, a small workout at race pace should be sufficient to maintain it and also provide some good rhythm work before the race.
An obvious key aspect of tapering is to rest. The general rule is to gradually decrease volume (but not intensity or this will mess with your muscle tension) leading up to a race. Most runners do this already so it’s not worth going into detail on. However, be careful of decreasing volume excessively as this can interfere with the ‘rhythm’ of training and the cycle that your body is used to. Our bodies don’t like things that represent a massive change to the norm, even if that change is going from a lot of exercise to a lot of rest. Many athletes find that if they rest excessively, they feel a distinct lack of energy come race day and it feels as though they’ve forgotten how to put in a hard effort.
An often overlooked aspect of tapering is the mental side of things. Running has a huge mental aspect that shouldn’t be forgotten just because it’s difficult to measure in a numerical sense. The main focus in terms of mental preparation should be to minimize stress and distractions going into race day. It can be useful to plan important parts of the race in your head – and including thoughts about how to respond if things don’t go according to plan. Visualization, meditation and other forms of ‘mindfulness’ can be extremely useful (I used to be a cynic on this topic until I tried it for myself).
Lastly, don’t overthink it (although that may seem at odds with all of the above). In the lead up to the race, most athletes have managed to hit plenty of fantastic workouts despite being in the middle of heavy training. So there is no need to worry excessively as you already know that you can run well. The point of the taper is only to give you that extra boost and nudge you towards your absolute best effort.
A few other tips for tapering:
- Prioritize sleep
- Focus on ‘feel good’ and confidence building workouts. Also use workouts that you’re familiar with and that have worked for you before.
- Be confident in your taper. Resist fitting in a big last minute session to try gain fitness at the cost of getting fresh.
- Don’t over-taper – there still has to be stimulus!
- Stay active and avoid prolonged sitting. This will keep you mobile and prevent you from being stiff.
- Don’t be surprised if a session feels harder than it should be. Be aware that your mind wants running to feel very easy during this period, and therefore only prepares for an easy exertion. Because of this pre-meditated expectation, the workout is bound to feel worse than it usually would. Disconnect such feedback from your upcoming race.
- Moderate training, don’t reinvent it. For many of us, running is therapeutic; cut it out and we’re not the same person. Luckily, you don’t have to completely change your habitual active lifestyle, you simply have to moderate it. Even if this means running for 10min on one day. Otherwise, be creative, turn what is usually a 40min easy run into a 3x10min easy run with 1 walking rest…
- Disconnect yourself from strict taper prescriptions. Just like normal training, there needs to be flexibility and individuality.
The key to running fast on race day: Muscle Tension by Steve Magness