Keep Calm and Taper On

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.

  • Reduce volume but maintain intensity. Decrease the number of miles you’re running, but throw in a few solid workouts. For example, 3 weeks out, race a tune-up 5K or 10K. Hit the track 2 weeks out for a 3 x mile workout (at 5K pace). Keep doing strides once or twice a week. Speedwork keeps your legs sharp and builds confidence in the days leading up to your race.
  • Keep your easy runs easy. With your legs feeling spry from all that extra rest, you may be tempted to hammer a run. Don’t. You’ll only be hurting your chances of having a good run on race day. Kevin Beck of Competitor magazine suggests scheduling a run with someone who runs at a pace much slower than your own or even hopping on the treadmill (if you’re used to treadmill running—don’t try anything new during race week) and setting the speed at a very low pace.  Do whatever you need to do to keep your easy runs easy.
  • Don’t worry about gaining weight during the taper. Keep your eating patterns regular. Don’t diet. Don’t cut carbs. The last thing you want to do is throw your body into caloric or glycogen deficiency heading into your race. In fact, if you find yourself a pound or two heavier on race day, it’s probably because you have finally returned to proper glycogen and hydration levels, not because you’ve gained excess fat. That’s a good thing. Keep your nutrition plan simple during your taper: Don’t splurge. Don’t diet. Don’t try anything new.
  • Do whatever you can to avoid outside stressors. This can be difficult—and sometimes we can’t control what life throws at us—but being aware of emotional and mental stress is vital to our bodies’ ability to perform. As race day approaches, try to avoid big undertakings or projects with deadlines. Get plenty of sleep and keep your bedtime before midnight (the sleep we get before midnight is the most important).
  • The taper applies to more than just running. Again, you may be tempted to throw in a few extra sets of reps at the gym or to push the pace on the bike or to tackle a Michael Phelps-ian workout in the pool. Don’t. Your taper is all-encompassing.
  • Know your body (and mind). Everyone responds differently to tapering. Age, injuries, illness, schedule, stress, and other factors may shape your taper. Some people like a shorter taper. Others need the assurance that they are well rested. Know what works for you and stick with it.
  • Go for a light jog the day before your marathon. Believe it or not, your body will benefit from a very easy “shake out” run the day before race day. Keep your run extremely easy and short—no more than 2 or 3 miles. You’ll get the blood flowing and shake out those pre-race nerves.
  • Don’t worry, don’t over-think, don’t over-analyze. Period. While positive visualization can be a good thing, dwelling too much on race day often leads to unnecessary stress. Instead, find other things to occupy your mind. Beck suggests picking up that book you’ve been meaning to read, watching that new comedy everyone is talking about, and avoiding running websites.
  • Trust your training. It’s simple. It’s science. It works.

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