You will often hear runners and other endurance athletes discuss a concept known as tapering for a race. What is a taper? Why is a taper important?
In non-athletic pursuits, a taper (as it relates to us) is defined as a gradual diminution of thickness, diameter, or width in an elongated object or as a gradual decrease. Applied to your training, a taper is decreasing the time, the training intensity, or the training volume in which you are engaged in the days or weeks leading up to a performance event. In other words, you would gradually ease up on your training leading up to a big race.
Why do you want to taper?
All performance athletes and most recreational athletes choose a specific race (or other endurance event) and then base their training on a peak performance at that race. Some may be more serious about their training than others, and may follow a schedule more loosely or strictly, but in general there is always the goal race. If you were to train to the best of your ability without regard to the race, then you may do quite well at the race but you would not be very likely to have a breakout performance. You would be too tired.
Instead, most training schedules bring in a taper before the race so that the body will have a chance to repair any damage to the muscles that your training has imparted, and to allow you to rest before the event so that you do not come to the starting line already fatigued.
Some of the benefits of a taper include:
- A reduced level of perceived exertion: You can run faster and longer with less energy and strain.
- Improved muscular economy: The amount of oxygen that your muscles require at a given intensity decreases, and your VO2 max (a measure of aerobic performance) can improve by as much as 8%.
- Improved glycogen storage: Your muscles can store more fuel than is possible during intense training, assuming that your diet provides that fuel.
- You will sleep better.
How do you plan a taper?
First, you need to decide how long you are going to taper for. If you are an experienced athlete running a 1 mile race, then you probably will not need to taper for 3 weeks. If you are running your first marathon, then 3 or 4 days just is not going to be enough. In general, the more experienced you are, the less that you need to taper. The farther and/or more intense your race is going to be, the longer you need to taper. For an average person, a 1 week taper is usually enough for a 5k and maybe even a 10k race. About 3 weeks is right for a marathon.
Second, you do not want to begin your taper too soon. If you taper too soon, you will decondition your muscles and will be less physically fit than if you “trained through” your race and did not rest before it at all.
If you decide that you are going to taper for more than one week, then you need to take a ladder approach. For example, if you are averaging 50 miles per week and want to taper for 3 weeks before a marathon, then your weekly mileage may look something like this:
- 4 weeks to go: 50 miles
- 3 weeks to go: 40 miles
- 2 weeks to go: 20 miles
- Race week: 37 miles (The race itself is 26.2 miles, remember…)
One thing to bear in mind, however, is that the first thing to go is your training volume. Your training intensity should not diminish until the last week or even the last few days before the race. You still want to maintain whatever interval or tempo training that you are doing. First, cut back on your long run distance, and then on your medium-distance runs throughout the week.
You should definately take care to get in a few runs in the days leading up to a race to keep yourself loose, and these should be at an easy pace. If you race at 8 minutes per mile, then you would want to do your pre-race runs at 9:00 or 9:30 pace with maybe a few short pickups thrown in at 7:45 or 8:00 minute pace.
The exact nature of your taper is going to be dependant upon what sport you are involved in and the nature of the race you are tapering for. I will write some future articles with more specific information for different sports; this was just meant as a quick overview with some very general examples.