How to Taper for Your Peak Running Race

Peaking for a race is so much more than just running fewer miles and letting your body recover from all the hard work you’ve done over the last 10-18+ weeks.  In my opinion, tapering is, of course, scientific (there’s a true and real science behind why we taper), but it’s also part intuition, a feel almost, to tapering.  From my coaching experience, what might be good for one runner might drive another one into the Taper Crazies!

As always, it’s important to know a little bit of the science behind tapering so you can make an informed decision on your own (or with your coach) about what is best for you.

In the blog post below, I’m going to outline what a taper is, how long prior to your race should you begin tapering, why you should taper, how you can implement a taper into your training program.

Need to taper for your next race? Here's what you should know.
How to determine the length of your running taper

What is a Taper?

A taper is the act of cutting back on your running in the days or weeks leading up to a peak race so that you can run your best.  A taper – or reduction in mileage – is important for distance runners to allow their body’s the rest and recovery it needs prior to running an all-out effort.  A true taper is usually reserved for your last race of the season or your most important race. 

When Should you Start your Taper?

This is the part that every runner grapples with.  Should you do a one-week taper?  Or two weeks?  Longer? Shorter? Drop the mileage? Add an off day?

There are SO MANY variables that you can play with and that’s what makes tapering so tricky.

As a coach, I think many of the runners I work with need between 7 and 14 days to taper.  

Top tips to help you master the art of tapering for a race
How to get the most out of your taper

Here’s when I suggest a 7-day taper:

  • Weekly mileage has been relatively low
  • An injury mid-training cycle forced them to run less than expected
  • The runner benefits mentally from keeping a routine
  • The runner runs well off of (relatively) higher mileage

Here’s when I suggest a longer 14-day taper:

  • The runner has done all of the workload expected of them
  • The runner has higher mileage and can benefit from recovering
  • The runner hasn’t had any setbacks during training
  • The runner can benefit from being “forced” to back off the training

Why Should You Taper?

The science behind tapering is pretty easy to understand: after running all the miles you can (safely) to improve your fitness, you eventually need to “freshen up” so your body can recover and you can perform at the high level you expect to race at. 

You obviously don’t have to taper – there’s no rulebook that says “Thou must taper”, but before a big competition or your last race of the season, it makes logical sense that you do everything you can to have fresh legs so you can compete at your best.

Should you be doing a 1-week taper for every single race you do in a season? I don’t think so.  If you were running 6 races in a season and you tapered for each one, you’d never get any good training done.

Tapering? Here's how to get the most out of it
The best tips to help you nail your taper

How to Taper?

Want to nail your taper?  Yeah, of course, you do!  Here’s what I suggest you do to get your best race performance possible:

Tip # 1: Stay confident

You’ve done all the training you could do.  There’s nothing you can change about the past now anyway, so stay confident in the training you were able to do.  Keep everything as normal as possible and don’t forget to relax.

Tip # 2: Bring your mileage down slowly

In the first week of your taper and depending on your weekly mileage,  I would knock 1-3 miles off of most runs you do.  So if your basic run distance was 5 miles, I would drop it to 3.5 or 4 miles.  If you were running 10 miles a day, for example, I’d suggest running 8 on your easy runs. Again, this is all based on your individual needs, so what works for you, might not work for someone else.

Tip 3: Continue to Eat Healthy

You’ve been eating healthy throughout your training. Keep that up!  You’re running less mileage, so if possible, match your nutrition intake to your decrease in mileage.  That doesn’t mean a complete overhaul, just be aware that you’re running less and you’ll need to make small adjustments.

Tip 4: Get Your Sleep

Rest, rest, rest. Get your sleep and where you cut back on miles, take some time to put your feet up to recover.  Use your recovery tools that you’ve been using all season – foam rollers, massage guns, stretching ropes, etc.  

Keep in mind that social obligations will always be there and try and keep them at bay so you can keep your immune system in tiptop shape.

Tips to help you master the taper
Top tips to help you taper for your peak race

Summary

You’ve done so much good work getting in shape that the taper can sometimes make you feel like you haven’t done enough.  To compensate, you’ll want to remind yourself of all the hard work you have done!  

Know how you operate and what works well for you when deciding how long your taper should be and what you should cut back on.

You’ll want to decide how long to taper so that you can plan accordingly.  Don’t forget: when you’re ready to taper, make sure you increase the amount of sleep, keep eating healthy, hydrate often, and stay confident.


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