Taper Like You Mean It: Making the Most of your Pre-Race Taper

You’ve done all the hard work. Your goal race is only a few weeks away. You’ve finally reached the taper. After months of long runs and workouts, you’re in tiptop shape, and all you’ve got to do now is stay fit and rest up so that you’re ready to go come race day.

But therein lies the problem. How do you maintain fitness while focusing on recovery? How do you stay sharp while scaling back on miles and intensity? How, exactly, does one taper?

The key to a successful taper is understanding the purpose and science behind it.

In running, our bodies need a designated time of recovery and rest in order to reach optimal performance on race day. Think of your race as a pinball machine, your body as the pinball, and your training as the spring that launches the ball through the machine. Your taper, then, is the time when you are pulling back on the knob to compress the spring—all that stored up energy and fitness is just waiting to be released.

Throughout the training cycle, it is normal to feel fatigue from one run to the next. High-volume training taxes the muscles and cardiovascular system, forcing the body to adapt to a heavier workload even while it is recovering from the last workout.

As race day nears, the focus becomes less about building fitness and more about peaking physically at just the right time so you can “launch” yourself on race day. This turning point occurs somewhere between 1 to 3 weeks before race day, though with longer distances such as the marathon, studies have shown the optimal taper length to be approximately 3 weeks.

But while you don’t want to overdo your training during the taper, you also can’t become a couch potato. The trick is to find the balance between resting up and staying physically sharp.

The purpose of your taper is threefold:

  1. Let your muscles recover and rebuild.
  2. Maintain the fitness that you’ve accumulated.
  3. Replenish the energy stores that have been operating in a state of deficiency.

As a bonus, the taper also serves as a time to refresh your motivation and mental strength, since training fatigue affects the mind as well as the body.

The physiological benefits of a structured taper are impressive. According to distance running guru Pete Pfitzinger, on any given day, a good workout will lead to less than 1% improvement in overall fitness, but a smart taper can lead to a race day performance improvement of 3% - 5%. For a 3-hour marathoner, that’s the equivalent of 3.5 – 7 minutes.

Keep in mind that just as every day of training has a purpose, so every day of your taper has a purpose, and the two are one and the same: to perform at your best come race day. Know also that the taper is relative; someone running very high mileage will have a higher percentage reduction in miles than someone with a lighter schedule. But by following these general guidelines, you will find the taper can be not only enjoyable, but also a vital component to your marathon success.

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