Running

How And Why To Taper Your Training Before A Race Or Competition

March 31, 2016
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There’s only a few weeks ago until the big day. You’ve trained hard and spent many an evening or a precious part of your weekend pounding the pavements in a bid to reach your peak of fitness. You’ve remained injury free and are so into the routine of putting in the miles and intensity that it would almost seem abnormal to stop or ease down. However, an effective tapering program can really make or break how you perform on race day.

What is tapering?

Tapering is the process of gradually scaling back the volume of your training from around 1-2 weeks before a race or competition. The general premise of tapering is to ‘keep the intensity but reduce the volume’. This decrease in training volume is normally accompanied by a slight increase in food intake to ensure you are well fuelled up for your big day. This replaces the old-fashioned notion of carbohydrate loading which left my athletes feeling bloated and unwell – not what is needed on race day.

Why should I taper?

Tapering is an essential part of any training program and in many ways the most important. The tapering process is a crucial and final phase of training before race or competition. The main benefits of tapering are:

  • Muscle recovery – It allows your muscles to repair effectively after weeks of hard training. The long runs, intervals, tempo and hill sessions all cause microscopic tears to the muscles which attempt to repair during rest. By reducing the volume of training in the weeks before a race, this repair process can be more effective meaning that by race day; you can run with fresher legs so to speak.
  • Replenish depleted fuel stores – During intense training, glycogen stored within the muscles is the principle energy source. As training mileage and intensity increases, (even with adequate refuelling) these energy stores will become depleted. By reducing training volume in the weeks leading up to a race, this allows the glycogen in the muscles to be replenished back to their normal level. Having good levels of glycogen on race day is absolutely essential in order run an effective race; otherwise the danger of hitting the wall increases dramatically.
  • Dehydration – Despite effective hydration strategies whilst training, the sheer volume of running can lead to an element of dehydration. The reduced mileage of tapering allows the body to re-hydrate effectively, which is another essential element for a good run on race day.
  • Minor twinges or niggles – More often than not, as the intensity and volume of running has increased over the weeks, it is quite likely that many runners will experience pain in various areas of their body. Injuries such as shin splints, along with iliotibial band, hip flexor, knee, calf, and Achilles tendon pain are all common running ‘niggles’ and are generally the beginnings of more serious injuries. Tapering allows the repair process to clear up these problems as much as possible before race day.
  • Mental recovery – Training for a race or competition is a challenge to the mind as well as the body. Running long distances or intense interval sessions are as much of a mental battle as a physical one. The tapering process enables the runner to prepare psychologically for the race, whether it is by planning their race strategy or simply having more time to get on top of other things which have been neglected during training. Going into a competition with a clear head is of utmost importance as it allows the runner to focus on the mental aspect of the race itself as much as possible.

Won’t I lose fitness if I taper?

Many runners experiencing the taper phase for the first time find this a completely alien process and quite often struggle psychologically more than physically during this period. After training for so long, runners are very much into a ‘train hard’ routine of pushing their body as much as possible. The concept of reducing mileage at such a critical stage seems daunting.

It is essential to stick to the tapering program during this time and not be tempted to continue with full volume of training. Devoting less time to running frees up more time for other things. Sometimes runners don’t know what to do with themselves and feel like there is a void in their lives. It is therefore important to find something to keep yourself occupied rather than being tempted to go out and exercise. The extra hours can be used as a time to catch up with people or to do activities which have often been neglected due to the time that race training has taken up!

Many runners are worried that they will lose all of their fitness by the time that it comes to race day due to the reduction in training volume. The reality is that a very small amount of fitness will be lost during tapering. However, this is more than counterbalanced by the other benefits of reducing training volume. These include increased muscle power, increased glycogen (fuel) stores and decreased muscle fatigue. The result is a faster race time. In fact, the race itself will be more than enough to return your fitness to the level that it was before the taper.

When should I begin my taper?

There are various schools of thought regarding this. Generally, it is viewed that the longest training run should take place two to three weeks before race day. However, some more experienced runners will taper just one week before a big race. The key here is to find what works for you, which can only be achieved having run a number of races. For the first time runner, it is best to stick to three weeks before experimenting. Also, the longer the race, the longer taper you’ll probably require.

How much should I reduce my training volume by each week?

Again, theories differ as to by how much you should reduce your training mileage by each week. Just as there are a number of benefits to tapering, it is possible to taper too much. Over-tapering can lead to the body becoming rapidly acclimatized to the significant reduction in mileage, which will lead to a sluggish feeling and affect performance. It is also possible that a decline in training volume can lead to a lowering of the immune system, which can in turn lead to illness. It is therefore important to get the rate of tapering correct. With experience, runners will be able to discover what works for them, but generally when tapering training volume should be as follows:

Weeks to go

Training Volume

3

70% of full training volume

2

50% of full training volume

1

20% of full training volume

The most important element of a taper is to enjoy it. Having run a number of long distance races myself, I was initially rather perturbed by the idea of reducing my training volume in the last few weeks before my first big race. However, I learnt to trust my tapering program and soon saw the benefits on race day. I now take my taper as seriously as any other element of my training and actually look forward to it. So enjoy your taper, you’ve earned it!

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