The art of the taper, the period just before your key race where training is adapted to allow you to be in the best possible condition to run your best race on race day.
It is also the period when a lot of athletes do more damage to their chance of a PB than in the combined 12 months beforehand, due to a mixture of cramming training, ignoring the importance of rest or just panicking and not really thinking about the taper. Taperitis is rife.
So what is a perfect taper?
Much like any aspect of training for races from the track to the mountains, a taper is a very much individual matter, with a few underlying key principles which we shall look into shortly, but basically, you cannot just look at what Mo Farah or Sifan Hassan do and replicate in its entirety.
The three key components that generally construct a taper are changes in volume, intensity and frequency of training. To add a fourth, volume/quality of rest, is simply looking at a taper from a different direction.
The majority of runners could probably name someone who doesn’t believe in tapers, either someone at the club, a top runner on Instagram or you’re doubting the science yourself. One thing that is conclusive across a range of studies is tapering is an effective method of preparing for a race.
An athlete who doesn’t believe a taper works, most likely hasn’t discovered the best way to taper themselves for a race yet and the range of tapering methods are huge. Some start 3 weeks out with a gradual reduction each week, while others just have a cliff edge reduction the week of the race for those concerned about losing fitness and hitting the startline underprepared.
Iñigo Mujika, the author of ‘Tapering and Peaking for Optimal Performace’, said that “a thorough review of the available literature suggests that training volume and frequency can be reduced to a higher extent than training intensity if falling into detraining is to be avoided,” but this is always relative to the individual and the event forthcoming.
Specificity to the event at hand, be it a 5k or an ultra marathon, should be the foremost consideration when deciding how a taper will look because the intensity for a track runner is vastly different to that of a marathon or ultra runner. Whilst the track runner may focus on keeping speed high, neuro-pathways active and take advantage of fresher legs to add short, sharp efforts into the taper, marathon runners needn’t be as concerned by top end speed.
For a marathon runner, it may be more important to work at the effort they will aim for in their race, maybe even stepping up to a lactate threshold level of effort but making sure that any volume of effort is timed and portioned as to allow full recovery before race day.
Mujika also surmised that “slow progressive reductions appear to be more effective than sudden standardised reductions in improving the athlete’s performance level” and this really should apply to the optimum taper, rather than individuals personal experiences.
If the key factors are not given the right attention, such as your diet, hydration, or work and life stresses, then the optimum taper may not be the best option for you. If you’re a massive fan of doughnuts, but this is balanced by your high mileage, then the optimum 3-week taper gradually reducing volume, but still chucking five doughnuts down your neck each day, might not be the best option. The easiest thing to suggest is to get your diet in hand, but it’s not always as simple as that. It could be that work means you live out of hotels and service station lunches, or just need to get out running to reduce mental stress.
If we don’t take these factors into account when planning a taper then you would be remiss in your planning. Even today an athlete I work with has been in contact to discuss how a taper often leaves her with stiffer muscles, due to running each day being her answer to eight hours at a desk. To remove this during the taper, but sustain the necessary eight hours at the desk, isn’t the correct taper, despite what the science for full-time athletes may say.
Hence it can be said there is an argument to maintain the frequency of your running, whilst reducing the volume and adapting the intensity. If you run twice a day, every day, then to alter too much could have a detrimental effect. Simply reducing each run to a percentage of your normal running or reducing it to one run a day (thus ensuring a 50% taper straight away) would still be tapering. The workload is relative to the training beforehand.
Often a taper comes after some of the heavier training loads building up to a goal race, and this can lead to immunosuppression and we see many getting taperitis or illness during the tapering phase, then blaming the taper for the onset of such illness or injury (Yes, the rest made you injured).
Taking this into account there are a few things you can do to help pre-empt this, including consulting with a sports physiotherapist and having an understanding of the relationship between immune health and performance.
Mental Side of things
Many runners struggle with confidence issues when reducing their training, but once again it is best to expect this and plan accordingly.
Look back at the hard work you have done, take confidence in this and trust in the process. If you are still doubting yourself, talk to those more experienced, your coach or fellow runners.
You can also use the time freed up from not running effectively by dedicating blocks of your day to other activities geared towards your target race, such as planning food and drink strategies, getting your kit ready and focusing a block to rest or mindfulness. All of this will add up and help ensure you are still increasing your chances of a great race day during your taper.
Experiment with your own taper, more so if you’re racing shorter distances and more often, but if you’re racing a marathon or ultra marathon then it’s worth erring on the side of rest and caution a little more, as the stress about to hit the body is a larger factor. Bruce Fordyce, the nine times winner of the 56 mile Comrades Ultra and sub 2:20 marathoner, would always take three days off entirely before any key races.
Ultimately you need to view the taper as an essential part of training, growth and your personal success. Your best performance includes a taper before the event, even if in the past you haven’t found the right taper for yourself. So research, talk to others and don’t be afraid to experiment to find what works for you.
About the author:
Robbie Britton is a running coach, professional ultra marathon runner and bronze medalist at the 2015 IAU 24-hour World Championships.