If you’re a runner gearing up for a big race, chances are you’ve heard of tapering. Tapering is the process of reducing your training volume and intensity in the days and weeks leading up to a race to help your body recover, reduce fatigue, and perform at its best on race day.
But how exactly does tapering work, and what’s the best way to do it? Let’s take a closer look at the science behind tapering and how you can use it to optimize your running performance.
The Physiology of Tapering
Tapering is all about striking the right balance between training stress and recovery to maximize your body’s physiological adaptations to training while minimizing the risk of injury and burnout. When you’re training for a race, you’re constantly stressing your body through high-intensity workouts, long runs, and speed work. This stress causes microtrauma to your muscles, which triggers a process of repair and adaptation that leads to improved fitness and performance over time.
However, too much stress without enough recovery can lead to overtraining, injury, and burnout. That’s where tapering comes in. By reducing your training load in the days and weeks leading up to a race, you allow your body to fully recover from the stress of training and reach peak fitness and performance on race day.
The Science Behind Tapering
There’s a growing body of research on the science of tapering, and the results are clear: tapering works.
Here are some of the key findings:
- Tapering can improve running performance by up to 3% (Bosquet et al., 2007)
- Tapering can reduce muscle damage and inflammation (Barnett, 2006)
- Tapering can increase muscle glycogen stores, which provide fuel for endurance exercise (Shepley et al., 1992)
- Tapering can improve immune function, which can reduce the risk of illness and infection (Nieman et al., 1990)
How to Taper for a Running Event
Now that we know why tapering is important, let’s talk about how to do it. Here are some key strategies for tapering effectively:
- Start tapering 2-3 weeks before your race (Mujika et al., 2006)
- Reduce your training volume by 40-60% during the taper period (Mujika et al., 2006)
- Maintain intensity but reduce duration of high-intensity workouts (Mujika et al., 2006)
- Increase your carbohydrate intake to maximize muscle glycogen stores (Jeukendrup et al., 1999)
- Get plenty of rest, sleep, and recovery during the taper period (Mujika et al., 2006)
It’s also important to listen to your body during the taper period and adjust your training as needed. If you feel tired or fatigued, take an extra rest day or reduce your training load even further. Remember, the goal of tapering is to arrive at race day feeling fresh, energized, and ready to perform at your best.
- Timing and duration of the taper: While there is no one-size-fits-all approach, research suggests that a taper of 1-3 weeks is optimal for most runners. The timing of the taper should also be carefully considered, with most experts recommending starting the taper 2-4 weeks prior to the race.
- Training volume and intensity during the taper: During the taper, runners should reduce their training volume while maintaining the intensity of their workouts. This helps to ensure that the body remains accustomed to the demands of race pace while allowing for adequate rest and recovery.
- Nutrition and hydration during the taper: As the body’s energy requirements decrease during the taper, it is important to adjust nutrition and hydration accordingly. Runners should continue to consume a balanced diet with a focus on nutrient-dense foods, while also ensuring adequate hydration to support recovery and performance.
- Mental preparation and visualization: The taper period can be a challenging time for many runners, as they may experience a range of emotions including anxiety, restlessness, and excitement. Practicing mental preparation and visualization techniques can help to alleviate these feelings and build confidence in the lead-up to race day.
- Monitoring and adjusting the taper: It is important for runners to monitor their response to the taper and make adjustments as needed. This may involve reducing training volume further if fatigue persists, or increasing the intensity of workouts if they feel sluggish.
Overall, the science of tapering for running events is a complex and multifaceted process that requires careful planning and consideration. By following the key principles outlined above and adjusting the taper based on individual needs and responses, runners can maximize their performance and achieve their goals on race day.
- Mujika, I., & Padilla, S. (2003). Scientific bases for precompetition tapering strategies. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 35(7), 1182-1187.
- Tapering for Endurance Athletes. (n.d.). Retrieved March 23, 2023, from https://www.trainingpeaks.com/blog/tapering-for-endurance-athletes/Bosquet, L., Montpetit, J., Arvisais, D., & Mujika, I. (2007).
- Effects of tapering on performance: a meta-analysis. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 39(8), 1358-1365.Pyne, D. B., & Mujika, I. (2009).
- Tapering for competition: a review. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 4(2), 217-231.