The term “tapering” was first coined by two swimming coaches in 1947 after they discovered their swimmers performed best if they eased their training for the last three weeks before major competition. There could not be a runner on the planet that has not at one time or another wished the swimmers had kept the taper all to themselves.
Tapering is as much an art form as running itself and continues to be studied and debated to this day. Scientific studies of any significance were just reported in the early 90s and still they fail to completely explain why the taper improves racing performance.
One such study (Houmard and colleagues 1994) concluded that tapering seems to produce a 3% improvement in performance, regardless of the quality of the athlete or the volume or intensity of the preceding training. Three percent might not seem like an impressive number but in a sport where races are won, personal bests achieved and medals brought home with only seconds to spare, 3% is a very good margin. If you intend to run a 4-hour marathon, 3% could buy you an extra 7 minutes.
The whole point of the taper is to heal muscles and replenish glycogen stores. Temporary training reductions bolster leg muscle power, reduce lactic acid production, and carve precious minutes off race times.
I read an article once written by a coach that had come down with a miserable bout of the flu on the first day of tapering for a major marathon. So sick that he didn’t even get out of bed for the first full week, it took the remaining two weeks of the taper for him to regain his strength. He achieved a personal best time in that marathon and had not run a mile for three weeks.
It is a literal test of faith in the practical execution of the taper – to believe we can cut our training to 70% the first week, taper it down to almost nothing by week three and still maintain enough fitness to run 26.2 miles….. at race pace.
The first week may go pretty well because your body is exhausted from months of hard training and the reduced mileage is a bit of a relief.
By week two, tapering is….. a devil.
To achieve a successful taper, consider these Do’s and Dont’s:
- Follow a marathon training program’s recommended taper and don’t deviate. Unless you have a proven formula that you know works for you, let the experts help guide your mileage in the last three weeks before a marathon.
- Don’t make up for lost training. If you missed a long run or didn’t train as hard as you would have liked, this is not the time to recoup those runs. The training you have done over the past 15 weeks, good or bad, is what will affect race performance – not how much you train in the last 10-15 days.
- Keep the intensity high and mileage low. Experts tend to agree that fewer miles at a faster pace are better than long runs at a slow pace for the last few weeks leading up to the race. Even still, there should be no hard days during the taper.
- Do not fill your spare time with extra-curricular, high intensity activities. Re-landscaping the yard, swimming, cycling or painting the house does not constitute tapering.
- Compile a list of things you can do during your free time, such as polish the silver, watch a movie, plan next year’s training or racing schedule, read about the mental approach to running a marathon – all things you can do while sitting down.
- At least by week two of the taper, eliminate the weights. Strengthening exercises will deplete the muscles at a time when you need them to be rested and filling up with glycogen stores.
- Begin a carbo-loading regimen three days before race day, consuming 500-600 grams of complex carbs per day. Research has proven the popular carbohydrate depletion/carbohydrate loading approach to be unnecessary. Consuming high carb drinks or orange juice will be helpful since it is difficult to eat 500g of carbohydrate on a normal diet. Drinks lots of water.
Experience has taught me the mind is a runner’s worst enemy during the taper. Occupy your thoughts and you stand a better chance of surviving. Let your mind convince your body it needs to do more work, and you will suffer the most on race day.