Enough is Enough! How to taper your workouts before a race

As the summer winds down, the reality of a peak marathon season looms disturbingly just around the corner.  The past 16 to 20 weeks has been a combination of long endurance runs, fast track miles, tempo runs, marathon pace miles and recovery days.  There still remains one final phase in your marathon preparation: tapering.

Effective training is only part of the successful race equation.  The tapering process is a technique designed to reduce fatigue that occurs during heavy training, while maintaining the level of intensity and endurance you have worked so hard to achieve.  It is the final phase of training prior to race day.  Tapering involves a reduction in training volume (mileage) and frequency (number) and an increase in intensity of training sessions.

Why taper?

Athletes are extremely susceptible to the mistake of doing too much. Be careful: over-training can lead to your legs giving out on you, muscle soreness, and fatigue when race-time is approaching. It can also cause sleep patterns to change.

Training causes muscle tears, fatigue and depletes glycogen stores in muscles.  Proper tapering produces greater muscle glycogen stores, expanded blood plasma, increased aerobic enzymes, improved running economy and heightened mental freshness.  Research also suggests that high intensity tapers provide physiological changes that include increase in maximum oxygen uptake, increase in muscle fibers, and increase in muscle glycogen storage with proper diet and increase in strength and power.

How you can taper properly

Most data shows that tapering should begin about three weeks out from your peak race. Your last long run should be two to four weeks out (varies depending on the athlete).  The primary goal is to minimize fatigue without compromising previously acquired fitness levels; however, it is important to maintain intensity during this time, provided that you reduce other training variables to allow for sufficient recovery.  In other words, during the taper phase, your volume should decrease from 60 to 80 percent, and the frequency of your training should be reduced by 50 percent, but you should slightly increase your intensity. At the same time, increase your recovery time between sets/reps. (Research varies slightly between studies).

Your body can only store a limited amount of carbohydrates in muscles.  To maximize this, you need to eat well but do not reduce your caloric intake when you reduce your training.  Adequate hydration is important to performance in most endurance races.

Make it personal

These are only guidelines; studies vary on percentage and intensity.  Tapering is a very individualized program—there is no single taper that will be successful for every athlete.  We all respond differently to the same training and racing events.  It is essential that taper programs are specific to the individual as well as to the event.  It is a combination of work and rest.

It’s all in your head

One of the hardest hurdles to overcome in a successful tapering program is your own mindset: many of us insist on getting in just one more run before race day, thinking it will aid in our success. You do not need to do more to be more successful! Always remember—by the time you begin tapering, most, if not all, physiological adaptations for improved performance levels will be achieved.

It is not unusual to feel anxious during the taper phase.  Your body is used to rigorous training, and its absence can leave you feeling like you can’t run a mile, let alone a marathon.  This anxiety is partly due to full glycogen storage, as you aren’t completely depleting it.  Remember that physiological adaptations will not disappear; it would take weeks for that to happen. Don’t worry—you’re doing the right thing! Stay relaxed and confident. You’ve worked hard and it’s time to enjoy the rewards.

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