Why You Should Embrace the TaperNov 15, 2021
Tapering is a crucial part of training that’s often overlooked. Many don’t know about it or think it’s important. Others think it’s simply doing nothing the week or two leading up to a race. But there’s a big difference between inactivity and tapering, and tapering ahead of an endurance race is an essential part of training—one you shouldn’t skip or take lightly.
Contrary to what some may think, tapering is more about cutting back. You don’t want to cut out training completely. You just want to lower both the time and intensity of your workouts.
Breaking it down
The goal of tapering is to maintain all the physiological adaptations you gained during training—things like conditioning your body to become more fuel efficient and teaching your muscles to store more glycogen—without adding on the fatigue and muscle soreness intense workouts can bring right before a race. Especially because the physiological adaptations training provides take time to occur. That means that adding in any intensity during the taper period won’t do anything to improve your race-day performance.
The length of a taper will depend on the distance you’re training for, but generally should last between one to three weeks and begin immediately after your last long run.
The key is finding the right midpoint between feeling underprepared and overtrained, but that midpoint depends on the person. For marathons, it’s best to schedule your longest run three weeks before the marathon and decrease mileage from there. For a half marathon, schedule the longest run two weeks before the race. Your mileage during the week should be decreased slightly and focus on workouts that are lighter in intensity, such as shorter speed work sessions that help you get comfortable with goal race pace.
Until the 1980s, most running coaches believed tapering’s biggest benefit was in resting the muscles, allowing the muscles and connective tissues to repair and rebuild. Today, it’s widely understood that tapering’s largest gains are actually to the circulatory system, in the form of an increase in total blood volume and red blood cells counts, as well as a return of metabolic enzymes, carbohydrates, antioxidants and hormones to their peak levels.
Those gains are important after a long training period that can leave the body depleted, which is why experts advise viewing the taper as a time to replenish and re-energize.
That goes for the mental depletion training can cause, too. Tapering can deliver psychological benefits by reducing mental fatigue.
Even runners who understand the importance of tapering don’t necessarily like it, though. Significantly reducing the intensity and distance of your training in those final few weeks can make you feel restless and nervous that you’re losing fitness.
Those reactions to tapering are normal and very common, but research backs up the effectiveness of the practice. One study found that by reducing training volume in highly trained athletes by 60 percent to 90 percent — and frequency by around 20 percent — they improved their performance by roughly 3 percent. That’s a decent performance boost, equating to about 10 minutes off a four- to five-hour marathon finish time.
Although that study pertains to runners clocking upwards of 100 miles a week, those running recreationally — say around 30 to 50 miles per week — should still aim to cut their mileage by 25 percent to 30 percent to see performance gains on race day. That should keep you from feeling flat during the race and, more importantly, prepare you to feel ready and energized to tackle the challenge ahead.
Now get out there and run your life.
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