Few topics have been as difficult for me to address than tapering. As a serious runner, I always feel like I should be running more and with higher intensity in the weeks before a race. But science does not support this approach.
Tapering links to one of the most important fundamental parts of training: REST!
A helpful visualization is a staircase: progressing to a run, runners ideally prepare for the race, matching the distance, intensity, race surface, and conditions as closely as possible. Ramping up before the race, ascending the staircase for most of the training cycle is helpful.
However, in the 1-3 weeks before the race, it is very important to taper, to pare back, to reduce the mileage/intensity of training runs to prevent exhaustion and injuries during the race and to boost peak performance on the days we race. The staircase steps of training should descend in the 1-3 weeks before a race (1-2 weeks before a half-marathon, 1-3 weeks before a full marathon).
What are some key tapering tips? Here are some time-tested favorites of mine that may be helpful to you:
1. Tapering means running less than the usual training run load in preparation for a race. For example, a 3-week taper for a marathon might be: 70% of usual mileage 3 weeks before, 50% 2 weeks before the race, then 30% the week before the race. Overdoing the mileage close to a race can cause exhaustion and injuries. Fatigue is not your friend on race day.
2. Reduce the intensity of your runs 1-3 weeks before you race. For example, I know my MAF runs in zone 2 are 13-14:00 minute miles. So running in that range, slower than usual, is beneficial and helpful close to race day.
3. Alter your taper plan if you are injured and/or fatigue surfaces. Last weekend, my I was walking down my parents’ driveway with my dog before running. Our dog pulled hard on the leash suddenly, causing me to fall on my back/side, landing on the rocky driveway.
So I altered my tapering plan for the Run Laughlin half-marathon this Saturday, cutting mileage to roughly 1-2 miles per day until the race this Saturday.
4. Adjust your taper plan for weather conditions and unexpected changes in schedule. Be flexible! Life doesn’t always cooperate in allowing us to fulfill our running mileage for the day. Reduce your mileage if conditions are cold/snowy/icy (as they have been in Nebraska lately) or inclement weather in general. If work/family commitments interfere, reduce your miles or take days off.
5. Always err on the side of caution. It is better to be slightly undertrained in the 1-3 weeks before a race than to overtrain and cause injury, exhaustion, fatigue or stress. Sometimes the simplest things, like adding walk breaks during your runs, can help.
6. No taper plan is set in stone. Try to “check in” with your body daily. How are you feeling? Tired? Strong? Injured? If your body tells you to take a day off or designate easy days, do it. Walking is ok if you need to take a rest day. Listen to your body.
7. Cross-train and do extra stretching in the weeks before your race without overstretching. Remember your foam roller, medicine ball, etc. Roll those tight muscles. Ice sore muscles/joints if needed. Remember the importance of flexibility.
8. Add extra sleep and relaxation the day before a race. Try to schedule extra rest. If you can’t sleep or have trouble sleeping, try meditation and/or tai chi. Even resting in bed with your eyes closed is better than not sleeping at all.
9. If you run more than once a day, try to reduce to once/day the week before the race. This is especially helpful if you are exhausted and/or injured. The fatigue factor is an issue especially in the week before you race. Try not to overdo the strength training the week before racing.
10. Stay off your feet as much as possible the day before you race and try to get in some slow walking. (If you have to run to catch your flight at the airport, that is ok.) Think about a rest day the day before the race (or slow running, slow walking, or combine run/walking).