Tapering: an art you need to master

Monday, March 5, 2018

The 2018 marathon session has begun.  Tokyo kicked us off in late February and runners are rejoicing that their winter efforts are paying off.  Most runners will be following a 12-18 week training plan and built within there is a reduction in running load in the few weeks leading up to the race.  This is known as tapering.

Tapering is probably the best part about training.  You have permission to train less and rest more.  Friends who don’t race might not understand how this ‘less is more’ strategy works in the lead up to the big day.  Your body will understand it though because it will need to recover, repair, and rest.
Depending on the event and your starting fitness level, you probably have been working hard towards your goals for the past few months.  You will have had rest days built into your weekly routine but as race day approaches, it is time for your body to experience less intensive training.  This will ensure you are in optimal form on race day.

Tapering is a tricky thing to figure out.  You might find yourself asking: How long should I taper for?  Will my fitness level be maintained while decreasing my training load?  Does cross-training count against me when tapering?  Can I still eat the same amount of food even though I am doing less?  Why do I feel guilty for resting after so many days of hard training?  Here are a few answers for you.

How long should I taper for and how much can I do?

In a meta-analysis of 27 studies, Bosquet et al.(2007)1 found that a two week taper period with training volume decreased by 41-60% was the perfect combination for desirable competition outcome.  There was no need to change intensity or frequency of sessions.  The simplest way to apply this to your training is to decrease the length of your training sessions.  However, this study looked at multiple disciplines (running, swimming, cycling, rowing) so it is unclear if this golden rule applies to all disciplines.  You also need to take into account your own body and how it responds to training. For example, you might be more fatigued at the start of your tapering because of long hours at work recently, which means you will need a longer tapering period.

Be sure to monitor your eating habits to match up calories-in with calories-out during a taper.  You will be at risk for a change in body fat levels if you consume more calories than you are burning.  It is suggested that you eat a carbohydrate-rich diet as part of a successful taper to help maintain muscle glycogen levels which will help provide energy to your muscles during the race.2

Is there anything else I can do while tapering to improve my performance?

Here are a few extra tips to help your body make the most of your taper.3
  • Reduce the change of DOMS by scheduling in a sports massage and/or wearing compression garments.
  • Assist your autonomic nervous system by getting lots of sleep in a dark calm space.
  • Keep hydrating even though you are not training as much.
  • Consider travel and time zones when calculating your taper period.  Also take into account changes in temperature and altitude from where you are used to training to where the race is.

Have you ever tapered before a race?  Do you think it helped or hindered your performance?

1.  Bosquet, Montpetit, Arvisais, and Mujika.  Effects of Tapering on Performance:
2.  Walker, Heigenhauser, Hultman, and Spriet. Dietary carbohydrate, muscle glycogen content, and endurance performance in well-trained women. J. Appl. Physiol. 2000.
3.  Mujika. Tapering for triathlon competition.  JOURNAL OF HUMAN SPORT & EXERCISE. 2011.

Portions of this post originally appeared on the non-defunct H2 Life Blog.

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