-- Marathon Running Information, Coaching and Advice from Coach Joe English

Training: Understanding the taper; peaking for your next big race

Coach Joe English

Coach Joe English

Many runners are in the last few weeks of their preparation for their Fall marathons right now, so we’ve started to see an uptick of questions about tapering. Everyone has heard the word “taper”, but they want to better understand how to do it and why they should do it. As I looked around the site, I found that this is a subject that I hadn’t spent much time discussing, so here’s a new article aimed at understanding tapering.

Tapering: The Art and Science of Peaking

Tapering: The Art and Science of Peaking

In the run-up to a major event, everyone wants the same thing: to come into the event well rested, focused and ready to perform well. The final stage of a well structured training program will include a phase that is designed to help do those things. This phase of the program is sometimes called “tapering”, but can also be called “peaking”, which is a more informational name for what’s actually happening in this phase of training.

The word taper means “to cut back” or “to narrow” if you were to look it up in the dictionary. One aspect of the final phase of athletic race preparation is indeed to cut back the volume of training to allow the body to recover. But that’s only half of the story. If an athlete simply cuts back on their training for awhile, they risk losing hard gained fitness at the same time.

Instead, what we want to happen is to “peak” or come up to a new a level of performance. So how does one reach a new peak by backing off of their training volume? It happens by combining the recovery of the taper with the continuation of shorter, quicker, and perhaps more intense workouts to maintain fitness in those final days or weeks.

Tapering seems like the easiest part of the marathon preparation process — and it would be if one’s job in that period was to just laze around and wait for race day to come.

The taper is a recovery period, which means that it is a decrease in the volume of exercise in preparation for a race. Tapering does not mean stopping all exercise for a number of weeks to get rested for a race. By reducing the amount of exercise, we allow recovery from the workload that has been placed on the body over a sustained period of time. In other words, the taper is the period in which the cumulative load of all of your training is allowed to unwind itself.

Just as you’ve required a day or two recovery after a long run, you now need a couple of weeks to recover from the entire training process. If you allow this recovery process to happen, you will come into the race rested and energized — and ready to meet the goals that you’ve set for yourself at the beginning of your training.

Let’s looks at some of the technical sides of figuring out how to taper, before talking about the other side of the equation — keeping up fitness during the recovery process.

Taper length
One of the tough parts of planning a taper is understanding the length of the taper. There are at least three factors that come into play in making this decision:
The distance of the race — the longer the race distance (and the greater the difference between the longest workout and race distance), the longer the taper will need to be to allow the recovery process to complete itself. For example, a 5K race for which the runner is routinely running more than 5K in workouts might need very little taper or no taper, whereas a marathon might require 2-3 weeks for most runners. Keep in mind that the race distance is only one part of the factor, so for example, someone preparing for a 5K race in the Olympics still might have a longer taper due to the importance of the event and the intensity of their training.
The intensity and duration of the training — tapering is only effective if the athlete has actually placed a prolonged load on the body and needs a period of time to recover from that load. There are times when athletes may come up to a race and not have been training for a long time consistently — for example if an injury interrupts their training — they may need little no recovery (and in fact might need to pursue additional training opportunities right up to the time of the race). But under more typical circumstances, when the athlete has been working out over a period of months, then the taper will help release this load of intense exercise.
The importance of the race — races have different levels of importance within an athlete’s training regimen. At times a race may be a workout in itself and thus need no recovery. For athletes that race frequently as they develop their skills, there may be little need for tapering before most of these events. When events of high importance come upon the athlete, that’s the time to take the break from training to allow full recovery and then emerge from that recovery period in peak form.

While it isn’t easy to set a standard guideline for tapering length, there are a couple of norms that might give you an idea of how taper length can vary:
High-importance marathon — for the typical marathon training cycle with about four months of consistent training, the taper is typically 10-17 days. That means that the last longest run is usually about three weeks before the race and then the taper stretches the last 2 1/2 weeks into the race. Ten days would be seen as a minimum — distance workouts less than 10 days from a race will have little impact on the athlete, because they won’t have time to reap the benefits from those runs.
Ultra-distance marathon or Ironman — typical taper time might be as much as four weeks or more for an important ultra-distance event. It is important to fully recover for these types of events and the training volume is so high that it takes longer to complete the recovery. It is also important to maintain fitness during this long taper, so an emphasis on short, quick, workouts during to achieve peak performance is necessary.
High-importance half-marathon— a typical high-importance half-marathon would likely need about 10-14 days of taper, because the volume of training will be lower and the recovery will take less time.

While the overall excise load is decreasing during the taper period, it is important not to go “cold turkey” and do nothing during this period. This can result in a loss of fitness just at the critical time leading up the race. The one exception to this would be for an injury sustained right before the taper period — in this case, the taper period might be used as a time to heal the injury, even at the expense of a slight drop in fitness. But for the typical athlete going through their taper, the desire to create a condition that will let the body “peak” during this period of recovery.

Here are some elements that help the body peak before a race:
Short and Quick — keep workouts short and quick. This allows the body to stay energized and keep muscles firing, without dipping into endurance reserves that will once again tire the athlete.
Focus on intensity — Many of my athletes feel like they’ve joined the high-school track-team right before their marathons. I like to put them on the track as many as three times a week during this time. This is a great opportunity for them to work on raw speed as their recovery happens in the background.
Decrease overall weekly exercise load — each week of the taper, the total weekly mileage should drop between 10 and 20%. The number of days of exercise does not necessarily have to be reduced, so long as the workout lengths are being reduced each day. The total drop in volume from peak volume should be about 50-60% by the end of the taper period.

Recovering properly and then energizing the body before a race of high importance is certainly one of the most potent tools in the fitness arsenal. Very few athletes get this balance right, and often end up simply cutting down on their workouts and forgetting about the intense elements that will help them peak.

Ensure that you maximize your recovery period by giving yourself enough recovery and making sure at the same time to keep the intensity of your workouts to help yourself achieve peak performance on race day.

Coach Joe English, Portland Oregon, USA
Managing Editor, Running Advice and News


One response so far, want to say something?

  1. 1. Training — What Causes Race Day Fatigue? | Running Advice and News June 4th, 2010 at 9:38 pm

    […] of long runs, another area to investigate would be the make-up of the workouts within her taper. The taper is the time after the longest training in which we unwind from training and accrue the benefits of […]

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.