The Perfect Taper
Tapering for a race (reducing the intensity of training) can be different for many athletes. It depends on the person, the race, their training up to the taper, and preference to what gives them confidence going into a race. With such large parameters in taper style, the only perfect taper is individually based on experience. What works for one may not work for another. And what works for one race may not work for another race.
How long should I taper?
Most tapers for endurance events such as marathons, ultramarathons and full triathlons are 2 to 3 weeks. I know of a few ultramarathoners that taper less or not at all. I think it depends largely on the training plan leading into the taper. I typically train 5 to 6 months for an endurance event using periodization. Periodization is where I push my physical limits for 2 weeks and then have a fall back week where I allow my body to recover. Without adequate recovery, my training continues to break down my muscle without the opportunity to rebuild. This will send me into overtraining. NOT GOOD! Overtraining leads to injury and burnout, both of which are difficult to come back from. The longer I train, the longer I need to taper.
How should I taper?
Easing back on intensity and distance is key. I also add in an extra rest day per week. At the beginning of a 3 week taper, I make sure that each training session is such that, I can fully recover from it by 1 week before the race. This is a gradual taper and I generally don’t feel much different the 3rd week out. Fatigue will follow for about 5 to 7 days. The 2nd week out I will begin to notice increased energy and I continue to reduce the training load. The final week is where I cut way back. It takes 2 weeks for any physiological changes to occur from training so intense training during this final week will have no effect on your race day performance except to tire you out. The final week I just “keep the engine running.” If you have a running race, swimming and biking are good forms of cross training and recovery if done at low intensity.
Does my food intake change?
I usually take in the same amount of calories until the final week of taper. My metabolism stays high enough to keep my weight the same. I cut back on protein near the end of the taper but keep the carbs going. This allows my body to load up on carbs and restore the glycogen stores in my muscles and liver. It is important to continue refueling after every training session, even if you only train for an hour. Proper hydration is also very important. It allows your body to continue flushing out toxins while you are getting fully recovered for the big race.
What else should I be doing?
Time for a nap!
Sleep! I try to take naps and sleep in if possible. If I still feel fatigued 10 days or so into my taper, I take extra rest days. However, I try not to take more then 2 days off in a row. A deep tissue massage 1 week before the race is terrific! It boosts recovery and my energy levels. I also keep my general training schedule. In other words, I keep my long runs on the same day, recovery swims on the same day, etc. The last few weeks I visualize myself during the race and crossing the finish line. I imagine the race being difficult and then overcoming that and finishing strong. I also make sure any final preparations with gear, nutrition or logistics are worked out. Feeling prepared goes a long way towards feeling confident in a race. If it’s a triathlon I shave my legs and that’s a sign that I am race ready. Anything you can do to feel race ready is a plus.
Am I fully recovered?
A full recovery takes longer than just our muscles repairing themselves. On a cellular level our body has damage to repair as well as glycogen to restore. While we may feel recovered, endurance events can take up to 5 weeks to fully recover from. If I have a race 3 or 4 weeks before another race, that may not be enough time to fully recover depending on how long and how much effort the first race took. I can adjust my effort in the first race and I can also adjust my taper. I also try to monitor my recovery throughout my training so that each training session doesn’t get compromised by a previous session. My training schedules are somewhat flexible and being conscious of my body’s state is important to successfully getting to the start line without injury and burnout.
Tapering is an art and a science. It requires me to listen to my body, try new things, learn other people’s techniques and follow my instincts. What is your perfect taper?