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The art of tapering

How to perform your best on race day

You’ve trained hard for many months and now race day is approaching. How do you make sure you’re in your best shape when it matters most? For this, athletes use a training strategy called ‘tapering’. Tapering means that you reduce the physical and psychological load of training in order to increase your performance.

Research shows that tapering leads to an average performance improvement of 2-3%. That may not sound like a lot, but if you’re running a marathon in 3h30, a 2% improvement is more than 4 minutes.

So let’s go ahead and reduce our training load! It may sound simple, but it’s not that simple for many runners. Often people tell me that they are afraid to reduce their mileage too much. For some, the daily training is their comfort zone and changing anything about that makes them feel insecure or ‘out of whack’. Others are afraid to gain weight, or simply to lose fitness. And again others are okay with reducing their training, but they feel so strange about it that their mind starts to play games with them in the lead up to the race.

To taper well, and get the full benefit from it, we have to start with the realisation that at some point – be it a week, or two weeks before the race – the work is done. More training won’t make you better on race day, because whatever training effect you will get from it, will be there áfter the race – simply because it takes time for biological/physiological changes to happen as an effect of training. And just as it takes time for these changes to happen as an effect of training, they won’t disappear overnight, or within 1-2 weeks. So be confident about yourself and the ability of your body to get stronger during your taper.

You also need to understand that you may feel weird during the taper. Your legs may feel restless at some point. You might even start to feel some pains/irritation here and there. That’s all very normal and nothing to worry about. What is important is to keep telling yourself that whatever you feel is just your body getting 100% ready for race day.

Once you have this positive mindset about tapering, you are ready to give it a go.

How do we taper? My experience with this (as a coach and runner) is in line with what research says about it. First of all, the exact details depend on the person. Some runners do better with a one week taper, whereas others do better when they start to reduce their training three weeks before a big race. Some keep a decent amount of mileage, whereas others reduce their training much more significantly. So it may take a few races to find out what works best for you. However, a few general tips can be given:

  1. Most runners do well with a 1-2 week taper. Those who have increased their training load in the lead up to a race may benefit from reducing the load as early as 3 weeks before their race.

  2. The amount of training reduction that seems to work well for many athletes is 40-60%. So if you generally make weeks of 100km, during the taper you can run anything between 40-60km per week. But don’t worry if you fall outside that. I know enough runners who did better while still doing 75% of their regular weekly mileage.

  3. According to research the most effective way to taper is to immediately reduce the training pretty significantly. So for example, the first 2-3 days of your taper you immediately reduce the training load with 40 – 50% compared with what you would normally do. So a 60 min run becomes a 30-40 min run. Another method, but this seems to be less effective, is to reduce the load gradually: start with a 10% reduction and gradually reduce the training load more as you get closer to the race. Some argue that the first method tends to work better, because it quickly creates a high level of freshness, making the training later in the taper more effective.

  4. Focus mostly on reducing the length of the sessions, instead of the number of sessions. Also reduce the amount of training at high intensity. So a one hour run becomes a 30-45 min run during the taper. A session of 10 x 1km might become a session of 6 x 1km (potentially with more rest between the intervals as well). If you normally do 6 sessions per week, it may not be smart to reduce this to 3 sessions during the taper, because suddenly having lots of extra rest days can be seen as another form of stress, since your body is not used to that. You can still do 5-6 sessions per week, but just keep them shorter.

  5. Don’t reduce the level of intensity of your training. You still want to do some workouts at race pace or faster. Just do a bit less of that faster stuff. When training for the marathon, you might have done a session like 6 x 4km at marathon pace. Obviously that would be too heavy to do in your last 2 weeks, but I often give my runners a session such as 3 x 4km at marathon pace 9-12 days before the race. You can also increase the rest between intervals, while keeping the speed the same. That makes the workout less taxing. Bottom line is that you want to keep doing workouts at the same speed as before, while making those workouts a bit lighter, both physically and mentally.

  6. Keep in mind that tapering is not only about reducing the training. If you use the extra time and energy that the taper gives you, to work harder, to go shopping or to visit places, you might undo all the benefits. Try to rest and sleep as much as you can, eat and drink healthy, and prepare mentally for the race.

And as a last note: there is one downside of tapering, if you can call it that way. Namely that in the longer term (when we look at our performance over several months), an athlete that tapers frequently will improve less than an athlete who doesn’t. Tapering should be seen as a way to improve our performance specifically for our most important races. It should be done around 2-4 times per year. If we taper too often, our training isn’t consistent enough to get the best possible effect.

All the best in your upcoming race!

By the way …..if you like this column, and you would like to pick my brain about anything running (for as long as two weeks!), you may want to consider signing up for our Kenya Camp. We’ve got lots of training sessions, fun experiences and inspirational meetings, but I also give some masterclasses to bring your running to another level. Plus, I’m available throughout the camp to answer all questions you may have.

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