Practical Taper Tips

Practical Taper Tips

One of my least favorite things about racing is the taper.  This is the period before the race where you cut back on your training. The taper allows your body to rest and recover in preparation for the race.

Even the elites taper for a race.  The length of the taper and the depth of the taper are going to depend on many factors.  What’s your goal?  What has your training been like?  What kind of fitness do you have?  How old are you?

Tapering is one of those skills or learned lessons that we all need to figure out as we progress through the arc of our racing careers.  Tapering is important to maximize performance in your target race.  More than once I have heard elites and old timers telling the story of how they ‘left their race’ at such and such an event by racing too hard, too close to their A race.

When you are racing the marathon distance and you’re trying to race an optimal time you have to do everything right in your training and that includes the proper taper.  You can’t race every weekend and expect peak performances.

The taper works with your overall training plan.  Let’s take a classic 3-phase training cycle.  First phase you’ll focus on building aerobic base and fitness.  Second phase you’ll start to work on strength and speed.  Third phase you’ll be focusing on race-specific pace and tuning workouts.

This training will be in a series of 2 or 3 week waves. Each of these waves crests in new high of volume and intensity.  The back off weeks give your body a chance to recover and build.  The build weeks stress your body specifically in ways to build strength and speed.

Think of it like compressing a spring.  Each time you push hard the spring is compressed more, storing up potential energy.  The taper is the last step where that spring has been compressed as far as it will go.  Picture that spring compressed and quivering on the edge of release.

The taper lets you recover from the last big push of training.  Now you have theoretically maximized the ‘bounce’ you will get when you release that spring on race day.  Your challenge during the taper is to keep that spring compressed and maximize the energy in that spring so that you can get the big bounce.

The taper is not a stand-alone thing.  It is part of your overall training plan.  If you haven’t trained well a taper isn’t going to save you.  If you have trained well you’ll have to work very hard in the taper to screw that up.

I have rightly or wrongly experimented with tapers of various durations.  In terms of impact on your results I would say in general that the taper is far less important than, a) how well you have trained, b) weather on race day and c) race execution.

Any of those factors will trump a perfect taper.

How long?

One of the finer points of tapering is the discussion around how low a taper should be?  The traditional consensus is that the taper for a marathon should be at least 2 weeks.  How was this determined?  Like most things in distance running I think it’s probably derived from the sum of tribal knowledge more than anything else.

Over the years runners have played with tapers of different lengths and the consensus of the average endurance athlete tends towards 2 weeks.  What does that mean?  It means that you will do your last, longest, or hardest week ending 14 days before the target race.  This gives your body 2 weeks to recover from that last big push.

If I’m just running a race for fun there is really no need for tapering.  If I’m running for fun I probably haven’t trained specifically for that event.  I’m coasting in on residual fitness.  There is no bounce expectation.  If I haven’t pushed there’s no taper required.  I’ll still rest up a bit and stay away from extra-long or extra-hard stuff but I won’t do anything special.

I qualified for Boston with a 3:09 in my second marathon with a one week taper.  I ran 2 60+ mile weeks as my last 2 weeks with back to back 24 mile long runs.  Looking back on it with the benefit of experience I can see that the extra week of volume probably didn’t add anything to my race.  But, I was is such good shape I could get away with it.  I was also a lot younger and my body could recover in a week from that volume and give me a good bounce.

For the majority of the races that I’m planning to actually race I have used a 2 week taper.  This seems to work well.  For some races where I might have a late cycle injury I have done a 3 or 4 week taper and have had excellent results from that as well.  As with everything else you should figure out what works for you and your goals.

How much?

The prevailing wisdom, again most probably derived from tribal knowledge over the years, is to back off by 50% or more in your taper.  For example my last big build week was in the mid 50 mile range and I cut mileage to the 20’s for the taper.

This is actually a great example of working with what you have.  Due to travel I needed to move some of my big build weeks around and ended up with a 2 week taper out of necessity.  At my age, I’d typically take a 3 week taper if I have time.  Since I’m only taking a 2 week taper and I had a big build week going into it, coach has significantly reduced the volume and intensity of my work in the last two weeks heading into the race.

How much work you do in the taper is a function of your training, your age, your fitness, your ability to recover and the time you have in the schedule.

If you look at 50% reduction, what does that mean, practically?  Well, it means if your long run was 20 miles then you want to drop that to 10ish on the intervening weekend.  If you’re used to doing 10 – 12 mile workouts in your build weeks you’ll cut those to 4 – 6 mile workouts.

You cut the intensity as well.  You want to retain some intensity to ‘keep your legs awake’.  If you were doing speedwork at race pace minus 30 seconds, you’d do half the distance at just around race pace.

Fartleks and short pickups are great taper workouts.  Run for less than an hour and throw in some short pickup s at race pace or a little faster.  These won’t stress your legs if you’ve trained well but will keep them awake and allow you to burn a little energy.

This is what is referred to as an ‘active taper’.  You may be doing a lot less work but you still have to keep moving.  If you just lay around on the couch your legs will be sluggish on race day.

Calories, Calories, Calories

One of my biggest challenges during taper is nutrition.  My body’s natural set point is ‘chubby’.  Without the constraints of clean eating and exercise my body would want to stabilize at 30 pounds heavier than I live and race at.

When I’m deep in a training cycle resisting my body’s migration towards chubby is a lot easier.  I’m burning more calories.  I’ve got less idle time to eat.  And I’m more focused on my fitness.  Nutrition is very much a part of training. You can’t get the most out of a training cycle without working on your nutrition.

When it comes time to taper this becomes a challenge.  Part of it is simple math.  Let’s say I was running 50 miles a week and in round numbers burning 100 calories a mile.  That’s 5,000 calories. At my current fitness level that is two full days’ worth of calories for me.  Over a two week taper that’s 4 days of calories I have to not consume.

Since my body is always looking for an opportunity to return to its chubby set point, if I just eat normal I’ll put on 5-10 pounds in my taper.  I don’t even have to do anything crazy! I just have to eat normal and I’ll carry a five-pound weight with me into the race.  5 pounds can make a giant difference in a race when you’re shooting for a goal time.

Then there is the mental part of the taper where you’re stressed out and you’re maybe a little bored from not having enough workouts.  A nice big meal to fill the tummy and relieve some stress is hard to resist.  But, if you want to race fast, resist you must.

When I was younger it wouldn’t make that big a difference.  Now I need to proactively go on a reduced calorie diet during my taper weeks.  It sucks but at the end of the taper it pays off.

There is no such thing as carbo-loading.  Stay away from the pasta, bread and beer.  All that is going to do is make you fat.  If you haven’t trained no amount or combination of food in the taper can save you.  If you have trained just focus on going into the race lean.

Even the skinniest person has thousands of calories of fat available for the race.  If you have trained well your body knows how to access this fat in the race.  I know it’s disappointing, but the best strategy is to eat lean and clean during your taper and go into your race lean and mean as a result.

What else?  Flexibility and stretching.

Tapers a great for working on your flexibility.  Coming out of those big training weeks you’ll probably have some tightness and soreness.  Take a few minutes every day during your taper to do some self massage and stretching.

Work the calve, hamstrings and quads.  Don’t do anything violent or invasive.  You don’t want to stress or bruise.  Just stretch and loosen.  Work on your ability to touch your toes. Open up your hips.

It’s ok to get a massage early in the taper but I wouldn’t risk it close to the race.  An over enthusiastic massage therapist could tweak something.  Just do it yourself.  Rub those muscles.

It’s also ok to do some pushups, crunches or whatever your favorite core exercises are.  Just don’t do a lot .  You are maintaining fitness not stressing anything out.

Yoga is fine but don’t do anything that may tweak your back or anything you haven’t done before.

Any stretching, yoga or core you do should be therapeutic not stressful.

Tapering

As we taper into the end of this article, relax, the taper isn’t THAT important.  At this point, so close to the race, you’d have to do something astoundingly stupid to influence your race.

Relax.

For the most part the outcome is out of your control.  Focus on the process and the things that are in your control.  Keep your volume and intensity low.  Let the energy percolate in the spring for that big bounce.  Watch your nutrition to keep yourself race fit and lean.

Relax and let the race come to you.

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