You’ve just completed your last big training session before your A race. You are emotionally and physically tired. All of those training sessions, compounded one after the other, have made you stronger, faster, and mentally tougher. The only thing that’s been going through your head in the past week or two is, If I can just make it to the taper, I’ll be okay.
And now you’re here. It’s taper time! Time to kick back, relax, and enjoy less time training.
So why are you feeling slow and tired? Why does your calf hurt (which has never hurt before)? Why are you having trouble sleeping?
Welcome to the taper crazies! But have no fear. The taper is doing its job; it’s up to you to trust the process.
It’s Time To Taper. Now What?
What Is A Taper?
A taper is the period of time before a race where you lessen the hours of training before your competition. It’s important to note that the length of the taper depends not only on the distance of the upcoming race, but also on the individual athlete. Some athletes do better with a longer taper and some do better with a shorter taper. A taper can last anywhere from one to three weeks. Recent studies have shown that an optimal taper is anywhere from 8-14 days.
Why Should You Taper?
Studies have shown that a successful taper can make you anywhere from 2- 8% faster on race day. A taper allows your muscles to repair themselves and rebuilds your glycogen stores for race day. Think about the training stress your body was under in the months leading up to the race. That stress was necessary to make the adaptations your body needed to get fitter and faster and handle the load of race day. Many of those workouts were completed despite fatigue and muscle soreness. The taper allows you to shed fatigue so you are fresh and “snappy” for race day.
How Should You Taper?
Some athletes mistakenly think that if you just back off on miles, hours, and intensity during the taper, then you should be good. In a sense, this is true, but you don’t want to back off too much. Also, if you start your taper too early, you will lose fitness. If you start too late, you will go into your race carrying a bit more fatigue than you want. The harder the training cycle, the longer the taper.
A good rule of thumb is: reduce volume (hours trained) 20- 50%, but keep the same percentage of intensity and frequency. You need to keep the muscles firing and engaged, or you might start to feel flat. For example, instead of your regular hour-long run on Thursday, where you do 15 minutes of tempo pace, you might do a 40 minute run with only 8 minutes of tempo. Or you might still do a Tuesday morning swim, but cut the yardage by one-third, and only do a few pick-ups. However, every athlete is different, so try not to listen to others who might be doing more or less.
If you are doing a longer taper, remember to slowly reduce the volume as you get closer to race day. So if you were training 10 hours a week, you don’t want to jump down to 5 hours right away. Finally, always remember that if something does not feel right during your taper (i.e.- it hurts to run), back off and skip the session. Better to rest than to push through any discomfort with race day so close.
Why Do I Feel So “Off” During My Taper?
If you feel terrible during your taper, it’s because your body is repairing itself. Your muscle glycogen, hormones, and enzymes are working to return to normal levels after a long period of training. That takes a lot of energy. Sometimes, that is where those “taper pains” come from. As the muscle and tissue repairs, you can get twinges and phantom pains. Also, since you are not exercising as much during the taper period, your brain kind of goes into withdrawal, perhaps from the lack of endorphins or just from the extra time you have to think about why you are not out running. So with more time on your hands, your brain can get the best of you, and you start worrying about that one swim session you missed or the twinge in your lower back. Try not to let the taper crazies get to you and just control the controllable.
What Can I Do To Help Me Get Through The Taper?
The most important thing you can do to get through the taper is to relax, mentally and physically. Remind yourself that the “hay is in the barn.” You won’t gain any fitness by throwing in an extra session (though you can hurt your race by doing that); and you won’t lose any fitness by decreasing the volume of training (ignore those Training Peaks numbers!). You also want to prioritize sleep and nutrition. In fact, one of the best parts of the taper is upping the amount of carbs in the 2-3 days leading up to the race (yay for carb loading!). Remember that a taper isn’t only a reset for your body, but also your mind. Use the extra time you have during taper to work on visualization techniques for race day and mental strategies to keep you calm and focused. Finally, less hours training means more time to spend with friends and family or say, organizing your closet (What’s a sign of an athlete who’s tapering? A clean house!).
So as you decrease your training load and get your body and mind primed for race day, try to enjoy the taper. All the hard work is over and soon you will get to celebrate all those hours of swimming, biking, and running on race day!