How To Master The Science Of Tapering

How To Run Properly

One of the greatest arts of long distance running is tapering.

Whilst a large number of runners run to keep fit, a vast majority do it so they can participate in races.

Be it a 10k, half-marathon, marathon or ultra-marathon – the goal for most athletes is to successfully complete an upcoming race.

It goes without saying that adequate training is important. It also goes without saying that tapering does wonders if you want to get maximum benefit from your training.

Whilst “tapering” is a buzz-word that gets thrown around in running circles, from observations and discussions with many athletes it appears there is a limited understanding of the concept.

As such people make horrible mistakes when it comes to tapering. The result: a horrible race experience.

In this post, I want to help you get a good grasp on the concept – whether you are a novice or seasoned athlete.

To do this, I am going to cover the:

  1. Definition of tapering
  2. Objective of tapering
  3. Science of tapering
  4. Key factors to consider when tapering
  5. Key benefits of tapering

It also important that I highlight that tapering has to follow a well-designed training programme. Tapering without proper training is a complete waste of time.

Tapering defined

Tapering is the non-linear reduction of your peak training before a major competition or race.

Quite simple right? Nothing complicated in that one-liner definition.

If you are a novice or part-time athlete who runs very few races in a year, then that definition poses no difficulties.

However, if you are regular athlete who runs races regularly, it does get slightly tricky. The trick is to choose which one of your races becomes a major one. In other words, it is un-wise to race every race. Some races should be used as part of your training for a major race.

This slight technicality means your tapering for each event will vary. I will elaborate later.

Objective of tapering

The sole objective of tapering is to enable you to reduce the physical and psychological stress of daily training so you can perform at your peak on race day.

Again, for regular athletes, when you decide to use a race as part of preparation for another major event, you will not run that race at full pace.

So, it’s important to categorize the term “peak performance”. If the race falls into your “major race” category, the objective is to ensure that your tapering enables you to run that race flat out. However, if you are using a race as part of training, the objective of your tapering is to ensure that you perform well on race day – although you won’t be running at full pace.

Science of tapering

Tapering is a science. If it wasn’t, the common mistakes of incorrect tapering would have no detrimental effect on your performance on race day.

So the million-dollar question has got to be: how exactly does reducing your training before a major race help you perform at your peak?

When you train, rest is an essential part of your training because you get fitter during your rest period.

When you start to systematically reduce your training, the fatigue reduces rapidly. However, because it takes twelve days for you to start losing your fitness, you find that the decline in fatigue and the maintained fitness results in an increase in fitness.

In other words, over a three-week period of tapering it is highly unlikely that you will rest for twelve days straight – unless you are injured.

As such, in that period, the positive difference between your decreased fatigue (days of rest combined with less mileage on your leg) and maintenance of fitness (non-loss of fitness over any twelve-day period) is the science behind tapering.

Key factors to consider

There are four key factors to consider when tapering.

1. Duration

Generally speaking, it is advisable to have a tapering period that ranges between 4 and 21 days.

What determines the exact length, is the distance of the event you will be running.

Suggested tapering:

  • Half marathon: minimum of 4 days
  • Marathon: minimum of 11 days
  • Ultra-marathon: minimum of 18 days

2. Weekly mileage

The most important aspect about dropping your weekly mileage is to ensure that you don’t run any long runs (more than 25kms) during your tapering period. This is where a lot of people make horrible mistakes. They run a long run close to a major event and then find that they don’t recover quickly enough.

Suggested drop in weekly mileage:

  • Half-marathon: 50 – 85%
  • Marathon: 50%
  • Ultra-marathon: 25%

For your half-marathon, a drop of 50 – 85% is not abnormal because your tapering begins in the week of the race and a lot of those days should be complete rest days. I’ll discuss this further under the “intensity” section.

3. Frequency

This is the number of training sessions you have per week.

I suggest you reduce your training days by one day during your tapering. In the week of your event, I suggest you have complete rest days for three consecutive days prior to your event. You can go for a 5 – 6km very easy run the day before, just to keep your muscles in action. You don’t have to though.

4. Intensity

This is a key aspect of your tapering. Again, a number of athletes make horrible mistakes by dropping intensity completely.

It does get tricky because you don’t want to suffer injuries during your tapering. So, from an intensity perspective, speed-workouts (especially track and short sprints) must be eliminated.

However, dropping your intensity completely is a huge mistake. From the above, you are already dropping your mileage and frequency of training. Those two factors over the duration of your tapering will contribute enormously to your reduction in fatigue so you can be well rested on race day. However, you don’t want to be well-rested and sluggish. Dropping intensity completely will result in a sluggish performance on race day.

As such, you can still maintain a healthy level of intensity. Run your normal runs at the pace you’ve been running prior to your tapering. For maintenance of speed training, do short bursts of speed (75% effort) as part of your training runs. No sprinting!

Lastly, your fitness consists of your aerobic and structural fitness.  Maintaining your runs at a healthy intensity will help you keep your aerobic fitness.

To maintain your structural fitness, you need to drop the intensity of your lower body (legs, calves, etc) training slightly. You can maintain upper body and core training intensity right up until the last week of training. However, be careful not to suffer any injuries.

The last three consecutive days of training must be complete rest, with loads of sleeping (minimum of 7 hours per night). For ultra-marathons, you can increase this to four or five days. Again, the day before your race, you can go for a 5-6km run.

Importantly, the complete rest in those final days plays a major role in ensuring that your body goes through complete de-stress mode.

Key benefits of tapering

There are a number of benefits that you will get from tapering. Below are the most common ones:

  • Improves immune system
  • Improves muscle power
  • Muscle repair
  • Increases muscle glycogen
  • Reduces tension
  • Improves emotional intelligence
  • Freshens the mind and enhances motivation for race

In conclusion, tapering is an essential part of your training.

It is almost like the glue that keeps your training neatly stuck together. Don’t neglect it. But, don’t overdo it either.

I hope you have found value in the post.

God Bless!

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