How to Sharpen and Taper for a 5K or 10K Race

How to Sharpen and Taper for a 5K or 10K Race

When we talk about tapering, most runners think of long-distance races like the marathon and half marathon. Both the half marathon and marathon involve tapers that span multiple weeks. However, doing a taper for a 5K and 10K can maximize race day performance.

Why taper for a 5K or 10K? Even for shorter events, tapering improves performance. From a physical standpoint, your muscles are rested and primed to perform. The taper allows your body to recover and adapt from weeks for hard training. Mentally, your mind is prepped to push harder and tolerate more pain after a few days of tapering.

Sharpening is an important component of tapering. You do not just want to taper down your training; you want to prime your mind and body for pushing hard in a race. Sharpening involves maintaining some race specific intensity and avoiding the pitfall of too intense of a taper.

These tips focus on how to sharpen and taper for a 5K, 10K, or even 15K as a goal race. Not every runner needs to taper for a shorter race, but many will benefit from it, especially if they are seeking a big PR or time goal. If you’ve trained hard for peak performance, you want to maximize your chances of feeling ready to race. 

Taper Strength Training

Often, I remove strength training from my athletes’ plans during the week of a goal race. At the very least, light mobility or injury prevention sessions replace harder strength sessions.

Strength training deliberately causes microtrauma in your muscles. As a response to this breakdown, your muscles repair and become stronger and more resistant to trauma. During a taper, you want to let your muscles rest and repair from weeks of hard training – which means minimizing new trauma.

This is especially relevant if you lift heavy weights and incorporate plyometrics. Those styles of strength training are extremely beneficial for runners, as they strengthen fast-twitch muscles and improve your power output. However, you will rely on fast-twitch muscles during a 5K or 10K, especially at the end of the race, so you want to let those muscles rest and repair.

If you typically devote an entire training to strength, make this a recovery day during race week. Spend time foam rolling, get a bit of extra sleep, and maybe do some light mobility work.

Decrease Mileage – But Not Too Much

For the 5K to 15K, the taper is shorter. Most runners will take 7-10 days to taper for a race that lasts 20-75 minutes. Too long of a taper will likely render you sluggish on race day. One week of lower mileage leading up to the race should render you refreshed and ready to run fast.

You do not want to decrease your volume so drastically that you feel sluggish on race day. The exact amount will vary from runner to runner. Some runners maintain relatively close to their normal mileage (~70-80%), while others thrive on 40-60% of their normal volume (not counting the race).

Importantly, do not change your weekly routine. If you always run five days per week, then run five days per week the week of your race. For most runners, adding in extra rest days will make you feel worse, not better.

Your recovery rate during training will give an indication of how much to taper. If you often require longer to recover from high mileage weeks and long runs, taper down your mileage more.

Sharpen with Race Specific Workouts

Maintaining your routine includes hard workouts, especially if you are accustomed to two hard workouts per week. As mileage tapers down, so will intensity – but it should not be removed completely. The overall volume of the hard workout will be less, but there will still be some race-specific workouts during the taper. A race week workout will minimize sluggishness and build confidence in your ability to run fast. 

The best race week workout presents no new stimulus. If you never did strides or 400m repeats in training, the taper is not the time to try them. A race week workout is a shortened version of a normal workout. For example, if you prepared for your 10K with long tempo runs and race pace intervals, you might try 2 x 10 minutes at tempo pace the week before your race. Try one of these race week workouts for the 5K and 10K.

In some cases, runners will skip a race week workout. These are often runners who are doing only one hard workout per week, only easy miles in training, or require more recovery time. The sharpening aspect should reflect your overall approach to training. 

Focus on Rest

Whether you are racing a 5K or the marathon, a relaxed mind runs best. Mental fatigue can hinder running performance and high levels of stress take a physical toll on the body. Minimizing stress and emphasizing rest will help you feel more rested and relaxed on race day.

During race week, focus on rest. Minimize extra time on your feet the day before the race. If possible, try to get ½ hour extra sleep per night. Take deliberate steps to unwind the night before a race: meditation, reading, watching a favorite movie, whatever works for you! 

What About Tune-Up Races?

There is a huge difference between racing a 5K or 10K as a goal race and running it as a tune-up race during a longer training cycle. If you are using the 5K or 10K race as a tune-up for a longer race, you likely will not taper drastically. 

Once you’re ready for your race, follow this pacing strategy to run your best 5K or 10K

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7 Responses

  1. These are great strategies! I never really thought about reducing strength training during the week of a race but makes complete sense. ST is such a part of my routine. I am sure it can’t hurt!

  2. I generally lighten up my training during the week before a race. On my regular speed day I’ll do a couple race pace intervals just to keep the feel for it. And I usually will take the day off before the race. That helps me have fresh legs.

  3. Wonderful tips. I was just wondering about whether to go to Body Pump the week before a race and you answered that question. I think sometimes I don’t take shorter races seriously enough so I don’t do as well as I could. If I prepared for the shorter races like I do a marathon or half, I think I would be a better runner.

  4. I never think about tapering for a shorter race, but it does make sense to do so. My 10K last weekend went much better than expected…and I had an extra day of rest thrown because I simply knew I needed it.

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