Tapering for your race

Great Langdale start

You've put in the miles, the speed and strength work and race day is fast approaching so all there is left to do is the taper. Tapering for your race is one of the most important parts of your preparation. When the gun goes off it is important that you have some zip and the way to find that zip is to ease off the training in the days, or maybe weeks, leading up to the race.

How long should the taper be?

The length of the taper depends on the training load you have put yourself through. Training load = volume + intensity. The more you have done and the harder the training, the longer the taper needs to be.

It is commonly recognised that training for a marathon requires lots of miles, built up over several months, with some quality work thrown in for good measure. This training takes a lot out of the body and so you need time to ease back from the peak of this training over several weeks before the marathon. Three weeks is recommended for runners who have trained hard and two weeks for those who have had a short or disrupted build up.

Shorter race distances don't require as long a taper as the marathon and you could probably cut them back by the same percentage as the race distance so, a taper for a half marathon would be 10 days, a 10k five days and a 5k two or three days.

Should I cut back on both the mileage and the intensity?

Both will need to be cut but in different ways.

The volume should be cut the most. If you are tapering for the marathon you could do just 80% of your normal training three weeks prior to the race, 60% two weeks prior and just 40% the week before the marathon and this should include the race itself so the final week's volume is very light indeed.

The intensity doesn't need to be cut back as drastically as long as you ensure that you are doing nothing that is going to do too much damage to your muscles and so make your legs feel heavy on race day. The sensible thing would be to cut out speed-endurance sessions within five days of the race so, for a Sunday race; you may want to do your final speed session on the Tuesday night. However, it may be advantageous to do some short, sharp efforts three days before. For example, on the Thursday you may do an easy run followed by 4 X 100m quick with a jog back recovery or you may put 2 X half a mile at marathon pace within your 40 minute run. This shouldn't leave any waste in your legs and will remind your legs how to run quickly for race day.

The percentages above may also work for your shorter races: for the half marathon, your training sessions 10 - 7 days prior may be 80% of your norm, 7 - 4 days prior 60% and 4 - the day of the race 40% of your norm.

How long should the longest run be during the taper?

You should work on percentages for this too. Again, let's split the taper period into three units (weeks for the marathon). Two units before the race your longest run should be half of the longest run that you have done during the training block and one unit before the race it should only be a quarter of the longest run that you have done.

Will I lose fitness during the taper?

No. Just as it takes time to build your fitness, it takes time to lose fitness - usually around 6 weeks with no training.  Many coaches will devise blocks (or mesocycles) of training that last 6 weeks before moving onto the next one. That is because it takes, on average, six weeks for you to adapt to a training stimulus. It also takes around this amount of time for 'reversibility' to take effect.

For most runners, endurance stays with them longer than speed and this is why you may not want to reduce your speed work as drastically as your volume.

You may need to adapt your intake of food accordingly to avoid putting on extra pounds that you then have to carry around during the race. One reason for tapering is to ensure that your glycogen stores are full on the start line so you need to eat with this in mind but be careful that you don't overdo it and then put on extra weight that will be a burden to you.

Why do I feel more tired and lethargic during the taper?

This is because your glycogen stores are (and should be) continuously full because your low training load isn't depleting them the way it does when you are training hard. You have also become accustomed to lots of activity so when you cut it down it does make you feel somewhat weary at times. You will feel better if you go for your planned light run and put in a few short, fast strides as suggested above.

Can I put the time, I would normally use for training, to good use?

Orienteer’s use a great word for armchair training - 'geeking'! For the orienteer this means looking at maps and planning route choices to get them into the zone for a forthcoming race. We can take a leaf out of their book and do some 'runner's geeking'. Get a copy of the map and profile or watch last year's race on a DVD. Some race organisers go out in the car, video the route and put it on you tube so the runners can familiarise themselves with the course even if they live hundreds of miles away. By spending time geeking at the course you can plan your race. Look out for the hills, the flat sections, any switchback and landmarks to help you decide the pace you are aiming for, where you can push on and where you may need to reel in your pace. From here you can use mental imagery and play the race out in your mind so that you arrive at the start knowing exactly what to expect.

Does tapering mean that I have to cut back on other activities as well as running?

It depends what they are. It's no use cutting back on the running to substitute it with gardening or cleaning the house or walking around the shops. These activities all require energy and strength and so need to be cut out a few days before the race. Don't jeopardise your chance of running well on race day because the lawn needed mowing or weeds needed pulling up. A few more days of grass growth or dust in the house won't do anyone any harm.

Plan to use the time for activity that is going to benefit rather than hinder. If you are used to getting a massage you should schedule time for this (but not if you don't normally have it done). You could also schedule in some flexibility work or yoga, if you are used to it. If the activity is relaxing and not something new to you it may be of added benefit.

Give yourself the best chance you can by taking it easy with plenty of relaxation for a few days leading up to your race.

More running tips here on the runbritain training pages