How to properly taper for your race
By Henry Howard
It’s race week for me. On Saturday, I will be lining up at the Zion 100K, a race I’ve been looking forward to for more than two years.
I was scheduled to run the race in 2020, but it was canceled due to COVID. The race directors not only allowed registered runners to roll over to 2021 but also extended that grace period to this year.
I’m in the midst of my taper now, as are several of the athletes who I coach. Others have just completed a race, including my client Lynn. Several months ago she hired me as a coach, wanting to set a half marathon PR at her early April race. Lynn completely rocked her training but it took a lot of persuasion and positive reinforcement to focus her mind on hitting a 1:4X:XX goal, rather than coming under 1:50.
Lynn set a PR, won her age group and finished in 1:49:36.
Her commitment to training, reframed mindset and solid taper period all played a role in her success. Here are my tips for a proper taper for long distance races.
Ten tips for tapering
The point of a taper is to allow your body to recover and adapt from all the training during the previous block. As a coach, I prescribe a two- or three-week taper, starting after the last long run, depending on the athlete’s fitness, race, goal and other variables.
Regardless of whether it is a two-week taper for a marathon or a three-week taper for a 100-mile race, there are some common themes that runners should embrace. Here’s what I recommend:
• Cut back on training volume. After peaking in both weekly mileage and the long run, it’s time to scale back and let the adaptation begin. For example, my last back-to-back long runs before Zion totaled 45 miles. The following weekend, my scheduled long runs combined for 36 miles and the last weekend before the race they were set for just 14 total miles.
• Maintain intensity. Even though the overall volume is scaled back, we want to stay sharp. That’s why we want to keep up the short bursts of intensity during the taper. In a previous post, I outlined the why and how low-intensity training works for runners. This theory also applies to keeping the body sharp throughout the taper and into race day.
• Stay off your feet. This can be challenging, especially for ultra runners. During training, the priority is often time on feet — a combination of running, walking and even standing. During taper time, more good can come from letting the body chill. Don’t worry, you’ll be on your feet plenty during an ultra.
• Eat carbs. I could have also labeled this one as, “Don’t change dietary habits.” The point here is to make sure you’re consuming plenty of carbohydrates every day, as you should be during your training for optimum recovery and performance. Even though you are burning fewer calories now, your body needs healthy carbs to replenish, rebuild and prepare you for race day.
• Hydrate plenty. Similar to eating enough carbs, runners should also be consuming a proper amount of water during training. Don’t stop now! Water will help flush out toxins. Additionally, it will help you on race day as you are burning through calories and possibly rising temperatures, as we get into the spring and summer race season.
• Back off caffeine. There is well-documented research that shows that caffeine gives runners and other athletes a boost when used during their events. However, there is some debate about whether reducing or eliminating caffeine completely before race day will boost performance. There are pros and cons that you will have to consider. This is a good overview to read and apply as you deem best.
• Get extra rest.Sleep is a legal performance enhancer. Aim for at least seven to eight hours of quality sleep every night, or more if that is generally the amount you get. The added hours of sleep allow your muscle glycogen stores to return to peak levels. It is at rest when our muscles and connective tissues repair and strengthen.
• Skip strength training. While strength training is recommended for runners as a way to supplement their running regimen, no good can come from doing so during the taper. Just like the guideline about additional rest, this concept focuses on repairing the muscles, not breaking them down by strength training. In a two-week taper, I’d recommend reducing the sessions to about 50 percent the first week (twice-weekly sessions down to one) and then zero the week leading up to the race.
• Wear comfy shoes. Treat your feet well and they will help you out.
• Don’t sweat it. The training is done. In the final two weeks or so before race day, there is nothing an athlete can do from a training standpoint to improve their performance on race day. Take the time to relax, rest and focus. This is not the time for hard efforts. And, if a workout doesn’t go well, or a minor niggle pops up, or you have a rough night of sleep, don’t sweat it. It’s likely just part of the head games brought on by the anticipation of race day.