How and Why of Tapering Before a Race

If you have been following a training plan for a race, especially a half or full marathon, you likely noticed that the week or two before the race calls for less mileage and shorter workouts. The decrease in training volume (how many miles you run in a week) and intensity (how hard your runs are) is called tapering. Tapering before a race serves as a culmination of your training to prepare you for your quickly approaching race day.

How and Why of Tapering

It may be tempting to add in a missed long run or one extra speed workout to test your fitness, but doing either of these would be detrimental and could negatively affect your race performance. After all that training, you want to be able to do your best on race day! Tapering helps you focus on recovery and sharpening in order to maximize your training and be best prepared for race day.

 

Why do you taper instead of trying to improve your fitness in the last two weeks before a race? Research shows that tapering can improve your race performance anywhere from 0.5%-6%; most runners will see a 2-3% increase in performance! To translate that into race times, if your previous race times and training indicate that you are in shape for a running a 1:51 half-marathon (8:28/mile average pace), you may be able to run a 1:48 half-marathon (8:14/mile average pace). That’s a big difference!

Most obviously, you see a big difference in your running after tapering because your legs are rested and less fatigued than they were throughout the training cycle. However, this is not the main physiological benefit of tapering. As you decrease your training volume, your body has more time to recover from the hard training cycle. It is during recovery that your body produces physiological gains from the workouts. During the recovery that takes place during tapering, blood volume and red blood cell count increase. Some runners may even experience an increase in VO2max and running economy. Tapering also increases the amount of glycogen available for your muscles. Glycogen is what powers your muscles, especially during endurance events, so essentially tapering is adding extra fuel to your muscles.

 

However, you don’t want to stop running or run too little during your tapering. Too much rest can leave your legs feel sluggish because of a lowering in muscle tension. Additionally, too much rest can throw you out of your routine, which can make you feel off both physically and mentally. While you want to reduce your overall mileage, you want to run the same number of days; if you ran five days a week throughout the whole training cycle, then run five days the week of the race (including the race). You don’t want to exhaust yourself with grueling intervals during the taper period, but you want to maintain some intensity to keep your body feeling primed for racing. My training plan, for example, called for 4 x 4 min at 10K pace during the taper week, which was a reduction in volume from an earlier workout of 8 x 4 min at 10K pace. A bit of speed work will keep some speed in your legs so you are ready to go on race day!

How much you reduce your mileage and your intensity during the taper period depends on how your body recovers from hard runs and how much you were running during the majority of your training. Some runners will only decrease their mileage around 80-90% of what they did for their training; others will cut their mileage in half. As you become an experienced racer, you will learn how much mileage during the taper period leaves you rested but not sluggish. If you did multiple hard workouts a week, such as a speed workout and a tempo/goal pace workout, do only one of these the week of the race at a decreased volume. In the last few days before the race, focus on short and easy recovery runs.

Many runners will find that they benefit from skipping strength training during the week of the race, especially if they frequently do lots of leg exercises. Squats, lunges, and bridges can work wonders for developing strength and stamina in runners, but you want to avoid excess fatigue in your legs during the race. Some studies show that it is best to cut out lower-body strength training up to 14 days before the race, especially if you are aiming for a PR. Also consider cutting out any cross-training, such as swimming and cycling. Gentle yoga, however, may be beneficial a few days before a race if it helps loosen your muscles. Determine whether or not to do any yoga or other cross-training by how it made you feel on runs in your training.


Nutrition and sleep play significant roles in recovery during your training, and this applies as well to your taper. Aim to get eight or more hours of sleep each night in the week leading up to the race, as sleep is vital to full recovery. In terms of food, you want to strike a balance of eating nutrient-rich and carbohydrate-rich foods while avoiding foods that can cause GI distress. You may want to eat more vegetables earlier in the week and then cut them out later in the week due to the fiber content; the same goes for switching for the week from whole grain breads and pastas to white. Also avoid eating any new foods and spicy foods throughout the week, especially if you tend to have a sensitive stomach.

Even though you are working out less than normal, don’t reduce the number of calories you consume each day, because you want to store up lots of fuel in your muscles. You want to consume more carbohydrates, so progressively increase the percentage of your calories that come from carbs. You don’t want to largely increase your overall calorie consumption, as this can lead to unwanted weight gain. Do anticipate the possibility of gaining a temporary and small amount of water weight as you carbo-load; your muscles are filling themselves with water and fuel for the race.


Finally, use the extra time in your taper period to reflect back on your training. This will help you prepare mentally for the race. Look back over your training log and recall the difficult workouts that you struggled to finish; these will remind you that you have the strength to keep going even when you feel like quitting. Also focus on the runs that went really well, especially any speed or tempo workouts where you surprised yourself with how fast you were able to go. This will boost your confidence for race day. Don’t beat yourself up over missed or shortened runs; looking back over your training will emphasize how much you have done, not what you did not do.

 

Questions of the Day:
How do you feel about tapering? Does it benefit you or do you get the “taper-crazies?”

 

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2 Responses

  1. Although I’ve never trained for a race, your post about tapering actually reminds me of a similar routine my violin teacher would put me through before my special end-of-year solo recital. This recital usually consisted of a handful of smaller musical pieces, along with one major, complex [usually long] musical work that I had been practicing for several months. The recital was especially intimidating compared to normal recitals because I was not playing only one memorized piece, but many. In the month or so leading up to the recital, my teacher would tell me to practice every day only a small portion of each music piece [so I wouldn’t be overwhelmed and burn out playing all of them every day]. She’d also assign finger/hand and tone exercises (musical and physical) that would help me improve on tricky skills those music pieces called for or that I usually had trouble with in those music pieces. Every 3 days, I had to pick one of the musical compositions to play all the way through from start to finish. The rest of the practice time that day was to be used working on the parts of it that I found I was still having trouble with. Two weeks before the recital, I would play the larger musical work all the way through, usually for the first time. We would video record it and do a post-recording break down to discuss the finer points I still needed to improve on. In the week before the recital, I would actually take an almost-total break from playing all the music until about two days before the recital. [when we’d have our ‘dress rehearsal’ practice recitals]. Instead, I’d read the music alone without playing it, then also just “silent” finger play it. This helped me maintain the finger memory and musical memory of the piece, without the physical tiredness that playing it all the way through would cause. This is only an example of what my teacher might have me do to prepare for the big recital – usually she had was some variations based off of that – but that’s the gist of it. She would also to tell me to just practice for a short time on recital day, then stop, put away everything musical, go out to dinner to have my favorite food and take a nap in the afternoon before the evening recital! A good way to relax and boost confidence. It may not be running, but I find it fascinating to learn how each activity has its own form of preparation for its major event! 😉

    1. That is fascinating, Erin! I’m especially interested by the role of muscle memory in your preparation for the recital. It’s so cool how our bodies can remember movements so precisely!

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