You’ve got a goal race on the calendar and you’ve been diligently hitting your workouts with your eye on a PR. But are you doing everything you can to ensure your muscles will be ready to fire on race day? If you don’t have tapering factored into your training plan, you might not be.
How fast you run a race mostly depends on consistent months and years of training. Tapering, however, can boost your performance from 2 to 8 percent. That could mean crossing the finish line two minutes faster in a 5K or 10 minutes in a half marathon.
To get these gains, you need to execute an effective taper, reducing your training and working towards a sharp peak. “The goal of an effective taper is to maximize rest while maintaining much of the fitness you’ve worked so hard to earn,” says Jonathan Dugas, Ph.D., a triathlete, coach, exercise physiologist, and co-founder of The Science of Sport.
People tend to do too much or too little. Some people keep training hard to gain more strength and speed, but get to the finish line tired. “The trick is balancing volume and intensity,” says Dugas. “The training part is done. If you’re trying to make adaptations, you’re taking the wrong approach.”
You don’t, however, just want to spend the days before your race with your feet up. “What most people get wrong, is that they think the taper is just a rest period,” Dugas says. When they get to the race, they feel flat and sluggish instead of rested.
“The scientific approach to tapering is to cut volume and maintain or even increase the intensity,” Dugas says. This helps balance the training stress on your body.
While you won’t start to lose the metabolic and cardiovascular changes of endurance training for several weeks, you need intense workouts to maintain the neuromuscular gains of speed work. “Intense workouts serve mostly to teach your brain and nervous system how to activate muscles to get you up to speed,” Dugas explains. These adaptations are hard-won and more quickly lost than the other training gains.
During tapering, you have to workout hard enough to send a signal throughout your system that says, “I want to keep this. I want to know what it is like to run race pace.” But you don’t need to do a lot. “The amplitude (training intensity) of the signal needs to be quite high, but the frequency (training volume) doesn’t,” says Dugas.
What that means is that you’ll do fewer all-out reps and increase rest. For example, in training you may have completed a workout like 8 to 10 repeats of 400m at 5K race pace with short rests in between. During the taper you might run only 3 to 4 of them with full recovery after each one. The key is that you’ll run them 5 seconds faster.
Not only do the individual workouts get shorter, but you want to cut down your mileage as well. Dugas recommends reducing total volume by 50 percent two weeks out from your goal race, then cutting that in half again the week before. Your intense workouts should remain about 10 to 15 percent of your total. “In the final week, you might only need to be running 2 to 3 times and spending 4 to 5 minutes at high intensity,” says Dugas.
As a final strategic element, Dugas finds runners often feel sharpest if they hit the bottom of their taper three to four days out, then do a final intense-but-short workout a day or two before race day. “That way, you hit the event feeling very rested, but also primed and sharp,” he says.
In addition to the neuromuscular benefits, getting in those final intense workouts restores your confidence. “When you don’t train a day, you start to get a little bit weirded out,” says Dugas. “The taper workouts can help maintain your confidence.’” On race day, you’ll be primed and ready to fly.
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