Tips on Tapering: Temper Those Taper Tantrums!

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Whether you love or loath the tapering period, it is just as a vital part of a well-designed training plan as the long runs, tempo runs or hill work. Tapering, or the gradual reduction of training load from the peak period towards race day, allows muscle micro-tears to heal, replace glycogen stores and replenish hydration levels. The main goal of tapering is to reduce the negative effects of strenuous training on the body and to have it rested and ready for race day. Skip the taper and be sure to arrive sluggish, tired and injury prone at the starting line. A far cry from the rested, ready-to-run racehorse that diligently did his tapering.

I ran a little survey to hear how runners feel about tapering, and received an interesting blend of feedback. In this article we take a closer looks at what readers fear about tapering, and provide the science to help you deal with the taper crazies.

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“I’m afraid I’ll lose my edge”  

A generally accepted tapering approach is to start tapering three weeks before race day, right after completing the longest long run. During the first week of tapering runners would reduce their mileage 80% of the peak training week. In the second week of tapering athletes run 50% of the mileage they ran during their peak week, and 33.3% in the week before the race. In other words, if you ran 100 km during peak week, you will run 80 km during the first tapering week, 50 km in the second and 33.3 km in the week leading up to the race.

Bruce Fordyce, nine-times winner of the Comrades Marathon ran up to 180 km a week during the peak of his training schedule. The third week before Comrades he would cut his mileage to 120 km (so 60% of peak weeks), followed by 80 km (44 %) for the second week. During the final week he only ran 25 to 30 km (17 %) early in the week, with no running during the last three days before the race. Tongue-in-cheekily, Fordyce recommends runners to arrive at the start feeling “slightly overweight and undertrained”, ready to get going.

On the other side of the pond, coach Terrence Mahon of Mammoth Track Club have his elite athletes continue with up to 75% of their peak training mileage up to the week before race day. He bases his approach on the premise that a more drastic taper has too much of a detraining effect on his athletes. According to this study, Mahon has a point. It was found that tapering for a four week period does have a detraining effect, or a “partial or complete loss of training induced anatomical, physiological or performance adaptations”. The study, however, showed that the detraining effect was much more pronounced in elite athletes with a long history of training and competing. For the normal weekend warrior tapering had more positive than negative consequences.

Keep the main aim of tapering in mind, which is resting and recuperating in order to have you at peak performance on race day. Although peaking is an art rather discussed all by itself, there is consensus in the approach during tapering to optimize the chances of peaking on race day.

Tip: Be sure not to start tapering too early and too drastic. Do keep up the frequency of training, but at a reduced mileage input. Also, don’t do tempo runs at a speed faster than goal pace. Program your body to know what to do come race day.

Tapering tantrums

“I get grumpy!” (aka taper tantrums)

Nerves can get pretty frazzled in the weeks leading up to a big race. You put in months and months of hard running, yet it seems doubt sets in the moment you take off your shoes after that final long run. “Did I do enough?” Next your highly recommended marathon training programme calls for a tapering period. How will you survive? The only way a runner copes with stress is to run! Add to the stress levels the withdrawal from the frequent runner’s high  and you have the recipe for the perfect storm. Not a fun place for a runner, and even less so for their housemates or co-workers!

Tip: Share with your family and coworkers your hopes and fears for the upcoming race that you worked so hard for. The better they understand  the easier they may tolerate the odd tantrum or two.  Also, try to take your mind off the race, and off of running for that matter. Spend some time with family or friends, attend a yoga class or finish that book. A positive tapering period will lead to a positive, confident race experience, says Cindra Kamphoff Director of the Center for Sport and Performance Psychology in Mankato, Minnesota. Fretting and indulging in your anxiety will have you arrive at the starting line with the same doubts and fears and may lead to poor performance.       

taper tantrums

“I gain weight during tapering!”

A few factors play a role in those extra pound or three showing up on the scales as you taper. Firstly, all those long runs may have left you in a constant state of mild dehydration. Hydration levels are topped up during tapering and with less running comes less sweating, so much of that added weight may be water. In addition, runners tend to load up on carbs (hopefully in moderation) in the time leading up to a race. Carbs are stored as glycogen fuel in muscles, and is accompanied by its own waterload.

Tip: Don’t fret about the additional weight too much. Don’t overdo the carb loading but also don’t weigh yourself too often if it makes you anxious. The extra water will benefit you on race day, and those extra pounds will have vanished after the race.

Taper tantrums

“I’m afraid of getting sick”

No, it is not only your mind playing tricks on you, but your mind can very much help you stay healthy during the tapering period. There may be a few reasons why runners get the “marathon sniffles” during tapering. The main contributing factor seems to be cortisol, the stress hormone, that is released during a strenuous workout (such as during peak training weeks or a race). Cortisol suppresses the immune system and leave runners vulnerable to illness in the first three days after a hard workout or a race. At the same time, the body doesn’t discriminate between work stress, stress about that race or actual physical exertion. If you don’t manage work- or race related stress well during tapering, chances of catching a cold are that much higher.

Tip: Take extra good care of yourself during tapering, and try to keep stress levels in check. Try meditation and focus on positive outcomes for your race other than that goal PB. Eat balanced meals, try to avoid germ fests and wash your hands regularly.

The Bottom Line

Tapering is very much a personal  trial and error aspect of running and racing. What works for one person doesn’t work for another. The approach will also differ from shorter race distances to longer ones. Ultimately how you taper needs to be a balance between a number of factors to get you to the starting line fit enough yet rested and relaxed enough, but not too much of the latter two.

Sources

  1. Bruce Fordyce, The steep slope towards Comrades, Article, May 09, 2017
  2. Duncan Larkin, The art of tapering like a pro, Article, Feb 25, 2014
  3. Carmen Bott, Detraining: the loss of training induced adaptations in the short term., Article,
  4. Mackenzie Lobby, How to deal with prerace anxiety, Article, Sep 19, 2013
  5. Dave Kuehls, Taper traps, Article, Sep 06, 2006
  6. Jayme Moye, Immune to it all, Article, Sep 29, 2011
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