Tapering for your next race, whether it’s a 5k, 10k, or marathon, is more than a reduction in training. In fact, research is beginning to shed light on the art of the taper. Usually runners fall into one of two categories. The first group, the “I made it—time to rest” group, is usually signaled by a complete shutdown and a feeling of heaviness on race day. This group puts up their feet up, likely running too little to maintain their given fitness. The second group of ‘taper-ers’ significantly reduces their training all awhile freaking out regarding their potential loss of fitness.
The goal of your taper is simple, rest to minimize accumulated fatigue from training while avoiding any effects of detraining. You’ve worked hard to get to race day and peaking for a single race can be achieved with a proper taper, and in some instances, become a shot in the arm for your fitness.
When should I start my taper?
Tapering for an event is specific to not only the race, but also the individual. It should be fairly apparent that a taper for an 800 should be fairly different than that of a marathon. In general, the longer the race the longer taper. A meta-analysis by Bosquet et al in 2007 concluded that a two week taper is ideal1; however, you can achieve an effective taper in 6 days for shorter races. Remember, the taper can be individualized. If you’re feeling sluggish and tired you may want to extend your taper period by a few days or even a week.
How often should I run during taper?
Remember, taper is not synonymous with vacation. Much of the research supports that your run frequency should remain fairly high. Research has yet to find a physiologic benefit for high frequency runs during taper week; however, I suspect it likely carries a psychological component of feeling “sluggish”. In my personal experience, too many runners hang up their shoes during the weeks leading up to an ‘A Race’. You want to avoid any detraining and loss of fitness. Over resting can actually have negative effects on your fitness.
How much should I run during taper?
A recent review of research by Mujika and Padilla in 2003 placed a range on mileage for your taper, citing a range from 60%-90% of total mileage to be beneficial2, while others state this range to be 41-60%1. This reduction in mileage can provide physiologic and psychological benefits leading up to race day.
How should I structure my taper?
There are a few ways to taper, but generally most runners will either execute a step taper or linear taper, neither of which may be your best option.
The step taper is fairly common and associated with a significant drop in mileage that is then sustained to race day. If you’re running 60 miles a week a step taper would drop you to roughly 24 miles a week until race day (60% decrease in mileage).
Simply put, you run less as race day approaches. A runner averaging 60 miles a week would gradually diminish their run distance every day, finalizing with a 30% reduction in run distance by the end of taper.
Although both tapers can help you recover and prevent detraining, a more specific approach to taper could be beneficial. Shepley et al found that a high intensity, low volume seven day taper can significantly improve time to exhaustion.3 This ‘quality run’ type of taper emphasizes speed at a lower volume and is termed an exponential taper.
This taper method is being researched to determine its influence on performance. Without getting too technical, a runner would drastically reduce mileage daily leading up to their A race, ending with a roughly 80% decline in mileage at the end of taper.
Executing a Taper
With emerging research, it appears that an exponential taper that drastically reduces mileage over two weeks provides the most benefit. The key here is quality, not quantity. From personal experience I have found this method to be extremely effective. Not only will you avoid feeling “dead” on race day, but you’ll also feel fast from a psychological standpoint. Try to work in short track or fartlek workouts at race pace. Don’t forget to provide ample recovery, too. As race day approaches, perform less intervals at the same pace. The result will be high quality with descending mileage and the ability to dial in to a given pace.
I’ve used this protocol with success in the past, but remember, this protocol needs to be individualized to you, your health, and ability to perform them without creating more fatigue. Be careful of running too hard!
Each interval is roughly 4-5 minutes with nearly the same amount of time to recover. Day 14-7 usually involves an overall reduction in 50-60% in mileage with a few short, high quality track workouts.
Day 6: 6 intervals at marathon pace
Day 5: 5 intervals at marathon pace
Day 4: 4 intervals at marathon pace
Day 3: 3 intervals at marathon pace
Day 2: Travel / Recovery
Day Before: 1 interval at marathon pace
1. BOSQUET, L., J. MONTPETIT, D. ARVISAIS, and I. MUJIKA. Effects of Tapering on Performance: A Meta-Analysis. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc., Vol. 39, No. 8, pp. 1358–1365, 2007
2. MUJIKA, I., and S. PADILLA. Scientific Bases for Precompetition Tapering Strategies. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc., Vol. 35, No. 7, pp. 1182–1187, 2003.
3. SHEPLEY B., MACDOUGALL JD., CIPRIANO N. Physiological effects of tapering in highly trained athletes. J Appl Physiol., Vol. 72 No. 8, pp. 706-711, 1992.