The Art of the Taper

If you ask just about any marathoner what the hardest part of training was, after mentioning the long runs, they just might say “the taper.” So what is the tapering period and how can you take advantage of it?

The Art of the Taper

Tapering refers to reducing your training load for a period of time leading up to your race. Research shows that a period of rest before racing actually increases the athlete’s level of fitness and can boost performance by up to 3%.

“Tapering” was a term coined in 1947 by two coaches of the Australian Olympic Swim Team. Coach Forbes Carlile and Physiology Professor Frank Cotton found that their athletes performed better when their training was eased up three weeks before the race. Many years later it was found that the same benefits holds true for distance runners.

During your marathon training the body may have been depleted of its enzyme, glycogen, and hormonal stores. Tapering allows for the replenishing of these reserves, helps correct microcellular damage, and encourages the repairing of muscle tissue to give that natural resilience back.

There is also some evidence that your red blood cell count will go up (allowing more oxygen carrying capacity).

Owen Anderson, Ph.D., editor of Running Research News, says,

“Scientific evidence suggests that temporary training reductions bolster leg muscle power, reduce lactic acid production, and carve precious minutes off race times. In contrast, hard workouts just before a race can produce nagging injuries and deplete leg muscles of their key fuel for running–glycogen.”

Tapering can also have a psychological benefit by reducing the mental fatigue that can show up during hard training.

So, what does it mean to taper? It’s not that we simply stop running two to three weeks before a marathon. Instead there’s a gradual reduction in mileage (typically 20-60%) leading up to the race.

While there’s plenty of science to support the concept of tapering it’s more of an art in the way it’s applied to individual runners based on their race distance, goals, and experience level. Most coaches and training plans will prescribe a taper ranging from 1-3 weeks depending on the factors I mentioned (race distance, goals, experience level of runner, and the runner’s health).

As you become a more experienced runner you’ll start to learn how your body responds and you may develop a preference in the type of taper you do when it comes to how long and specific mileage reductions. Your tapering needs can also change with aging, illness or injury, and if you have a lot of other life stressors.

When to taper?

Do I believe that it’s necessary to taper before every single race? No! There are many instances when you’re using a race as part of your training for some other goal.

For example, I ran a half marathon a few weeks ago as part of an 18 mile long run and didn’t do any tapering beforehand. Another example where you wouldn’t want to taper would be when you’re training for an ultra marathon and there’s a marathon distance scheduled into your peak build up week.

There are also other times when you’re doing a race for fun or as a way to support a less experienced runner and you’re not planning on running anywhere near your full ability. For example, you decide to do a 5k race with your kids who are new or younger runners. The length of your taper would also differ depending on whether you’re training for a 10k vs. a marathon.

Good instances to taper would include the following:

  • It’s a new distance.
  • It’s a challenging distance (such as a half marathon and beyond).
  • You’re aiming for a PR/PB and planning to run at a high effort.
  • It’s not a new distance but you’ve been dealing with sickness, niggles, or feeling under recovered.

General Tapering Guidelines:

1. Too much of a good thing is still too much!
Most of us have a built in barometer in our heads that makes us feel like we’re making progress when we’re building toward something (whether it be increased long runs, more mileage, etc). But with training there’s a point when doing more is actually going to hurt your fitness and hinder your race performance. I believe it’s better to go into a race slightly undertrained and 100% healthy than to be run down and unhealthy. With a taper you’re being asked to step back your long runs, mileage, and effort a bit and for Type A runners this can be a huge challenge. If you’re more relaxed about training then the taper may be just your style.

2. Don’t compare yourself to other runners during the taper.
You may hear about runners who decide to do a 26 mile run a week before the marathon and that can lead you to doubt the decision to cut back. The taper can be doubly hard when you feel like you didn’t have an ideal training cycle and maybe didn’t do enough. When you find anxiety gnawing at your mind that you’re not doing enough just replace it with a positive truth, “my body is resting and getting stronger during this taper so that I have a great race.” 

3. Anxiety is common during the taper.
The taper can really mess with self-confidence because suddenly you’re asked to do less, to take it a bit easier while your mind is saying, “hey, I’ve got a big event coming up.” Being prepared for and acknowledging that this anxiety may happen is part of the battle.  Then you can be aware of what’s going on when those anxious thoughts or even little aches and pains show up. Although some anxiety is normal if your anxiety becomes overwhelming be sure to talk with a counselor or therapist. There can come a point when anxiety is bringing down the quality of your life and no race is worth it.  We’ll talk about common anxieties that are normal a bit later.

4. Follow a training plan.
If you’re winging it with your training and trying to go it alone it’s very common to either do too much or too little. A Type A runner will probably do too much and a more relaxed personality may err on the side of doing too little. A training plan can help you peak your fitness at the right time and will also build in a tapering period so that you feel fresh and rested by race day. The last couple of weeks during the taper is a good time to reduce the intensity and duration of other cross training activities as well. I always taper down my strength training and other exercise so that the only thing I’m going the week before a race in addition to running is light mobility work.

Here are a couple of examples of tapers from the MTA training plans:

  • Beginner Half Marathon Plan = 2 week taper. The longest run of 12 miles two weeks before the race and a 6 mile long run one week before the race.
  • Beginner Marathon Plan = 3 week taper. The longest run 20 miles three weeks before the race, 12 mile long run 2 weeks before race, 8 mile long run 1 week before race.

Screenshot of MTA beginner marathon plan

5. Be present during the workouts you do have during the taper so you can fulfill the true purpose of them. 
This is especially important on the easy run days when you may be tempted to blow off some of your extra energy and run too fast. Remember the purpose of the taper is to allow your body to show up to the start line strong and healthy and give you a better chance of a great performance.

6. Channel your extra energy wisely.
If you find yourself with extra time and energy try to fill it with something else productive or fun. This could be something that was neglected during the times you were busy during training. Things like organizing a closet, reading a book, sleeping in a little longer, soaking in a hot bath, going on an easy bike ride for fun, getting a massage, catching up on a TV show, etc. can all be excellent ways to channel the extra time or energy. Don’t try something new and risky during the taper that might result in injury. This is not the best time to learn skateboarding or skiing for the first time or start a new and intense exercise program.

Things that are normal during a taper:

One of the most challenging things during a taper is dealing with anxiety and wondering if the things that you’re experiencing are normal. Rest assured that a strange new symptom or thought is probably something that other runners have experienced. Here are some things that are normal during a taper (not listed in any particular order):

  1. Self doubt (Did I do enough? Do I have what it takes? Did I train right? What if I fail?)
  2. Looking forward to the taper and then not enjoying it as much as you thought when it arrives.
  3. Bad dreams about the race (you arrive late, get lost, can’t find your race kit, etc).
  4. Daydreaming about the race (What if I have the most amazing race of my life?).
  5. Obsessing about your last long run/Wanting to repeat or have a do-over of your long run.
  6. Feeling restless.
  7. Feeling anxious.
  8. Mild irritability.
  9. Obsessing about how you’re feeling/worrying about getting sick.
  10. Worrying that you’re losing fitness or gaining weight.
  11. New aches and niggles suddenly appearing.
  12. Worrying about race details and logistics.
  13. Feeling extra hungry or possibly feeling less hungry because you’re not running as much.
  14. Weather stalking.
  15. Normal training runs suddenly feeling hard.
  16. Obsessing about what shoes or other gear that you’ll wear.
  17. Feeling butterflies in your stomach when you think about the race.
  18. Ordering new running gear that you hope will give you an edge.
  19. Blocking out any thoughts about the race because it causes you to worry.
  20. Overthinking your pacing strategy.
  21. Overthinking your nutrition/hydration strategy (or making last minute changes to your routine).
  22. Stalking the race website to glean every last detail and reading other blogs that talk about the race.
  23. Reading books about running or watching documentaries/movies hoping for an edge up in your mental or physical performance during the race.
  24. Overthinking or trying to craft the perfect music playlist for your race.

It’s also completely normal to enjoy the taper and wish it were longer. So be thankful if you’re not dealing with the tapering anxiety that we talked about.

Remember, the purpose of the taper is to help you feel more mentally and physically refreshed for race day. Even though you may be doing less physically during this time you can still be working on your mental strength. When you have anxious thoughts be sure to acknowledge them. These thoughts are just a sign that you care about the race and your performance. Then work on building positive mantras to make your mind stronger for race day.

Also Mentioned in This Episode

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Des Linden breaks the 50k world record with time of 2:59:54 in Oregon (5:47/mile or 3:36/km), becoming the first woman to run sub- 3:00 hours at that distance.

Mariko Yugeta, age 62, broke her own W60+ marathon world record by running 2:52:01 at the Itabashi Trial Marathon in Tokyo beating her previous time by 12 seconds. She has run 3 marathons this year under world record pace and has the goal of going sub-2:50 at the Tokyo Marathon this year.

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