Updated: Jan 14, 2020
by Chris Palmquist
Whether you are racing cross country ski marathons in the north or triathlons and running races in the south, many athletes are now navigating their way through the last crucial couple of weeks leading up to an important race. Tapering is a period of reduced training volume that allows an athlete to shed some of the cumulative fatigue that is an inevitable side-effect of building fitness. An appropriate taper week or two can be the difference between feeling “flat” or feeling “magical” on race day. Here are some of the features of a great taper.
Every Taper is Unique
Every race and athlete will require a different blend of training sessions and rest during a taper. There is no general taper formula. However, there are some principles to keep in mind:
Longer races need longer tapers. Taper periods may range from 2-3 days to 3-4 weeks, with long-course triathlons and marathons requiring longer periods of reduced training.
Reduce weekly training volume significantly during a taper, often by as much as 40-60%. If you have been averaging 10 hours a week during most training weeks, 4-6 hours of training might work best for you during the taper.
Maintain your typical training session frequency during the taper. If you usually swim 3 X 60:00 a week, try 3 x 30:00 a week during your taper. Every training session reminds your neuromuscular system of how to coordinate your movement during your sport. Maintaining training session frequency will allow you to retain the coordination required for race day.
Adjust your nutrition according to your training adjustments (less training requires fewer calories). Eat safe foods that cause you to feel your best. Maintain hydration.
Use the time saved from less training volume to sleep and rest more. Try to get adequate sleep each night without drastically changing your bedtime or wake up times.
Taper Mental Health
Although we might look forward to the taper weeks when we are not training as hard, they can be uncomfortable days of anxiety, tiredness and weird pains. Here is the reality of “taper.”
You will feel tired. This will not seem to abate – even on the day before your race. In fact, some of your best races will occur even after feeling miserable just a day before.
You will feel tight and you will feel pain. Your “taper hypochondria” will have you extra sensitive to every ache. Things that you would normally not even notice will have you considering medical treatment.
You will be uncertain and anxious. You may not be “looking forward” to your race but dreading it instead. This is NORMAL. It does not mean that you should retire or skip the race. Race day will be different – all will be well once the starting gun fires.
You will feel “unprepared.” Just endure this. Do not do a “test race” workout just to ease your anxiety. Save your race for race day. Trust your training. List all that you have done in preparation for this race. Review the list often.
You should visualize race day – all things good and bad. Yes, visualize yourself powering across the finish line, feeling great. But the real benefit from pre-race visualization comes from visualizing yourself successfully conquering potential race-day problems such as mechanical issues, cramping, difficult weather, etc. “Practice” these situations in your visualization so that you lessen your anxiety about the upcoming race.
Tapering sounds wonderful right? Be patient. If you trust the tapering process, you will find an extra spring in your legs, more “energy in the bank” and the enthusiasm to make race day magical!