“The hay is in the barn!”
If you’re training for your first long race, that expression may not mean a whole lot to you. But just like farmers admired their hard work over the course of a season preparing for winter, you can look back on your training to gain confidence for your upcoming race.
Tapering is the final step before your race – the culmination of all that hard work. Done properly, tapering will leave you rested, sharp, and ready to race.
What is tapering?
Tapering is a frequently misunderstood concept. Most simply, tapering means a reduction in volume of your overall mileage in the days or weeks leading up to a goal race. The longer your goal race, the longer the period time you’ll spend cutting back on your mileage. This is only true up to a point, however. The maximum length of a taper is typically 3 weeks, even when training for races longer than a marathon.
Opinions vary on many aspects of tapering, from the duration, to the maximum mileage, to the intensity of the workouts during that time. As a general rule, you’ll want to gradually reduce your overall volume (mileage), while still maintaining intensity to keep you sharp. As inviting as it may sound, tapering should never entail sitting on your couch for 2 weeks leading up to race day.
Why should you taper?
While many runners get anxious about cutting back their training, there is good reason to taper. All the damage you incur from your highest mileage is restored to optimal condition during your taper. Hormone levels, muscle glycogen, and even immune function improve to allow you to perform your best.
Tapering is essential because it gives your body time to adequately absorb your workouts and recover from your last hard effort prior to racing. Typically this process takes about 2 weeks. For most runners training for their first marathon or half, the long run is typically your hardest effort. This means that you should allow at least 14 days between your last long run and race day.
On average, a successful taper can improve your finishing time by about 3%. That may not sound like much, but over the course of a long race like a marathon that can mean as much as a 5 to 10 minute improvement. Who wouldn’t want that?
While learning to taper is a personal process that should be tailored to your specific needs, there are some general principles that are almost universally applicable:
- Allow 2 weeks from your last hard workout. Since it takes about two weeks for your body to “absorb” a hard workout, you don’t want to run any workouts that are too difficult when your goal race is within that window of time. Doing so will leave you overly fatigued without the benefit of fully adapting from the workout.
- Stick with your typical schedule. If you typically run 4 to 5 days each week, stick with this schedule. Your body prefers consistency. Maintaining your schedule while gradually cutting back on the length of your runs is best. The only exception to this is if you’re dealing with minor illness or injury – then you may benefit from an extra day of rest.
- Decrease total volume. We’ll get into the specifics of this below, but during your taper each week should include a gradual reduction in volume. This is usually measured based on your “peak weeks” during training, or the week(s) that you ran the highest number of miles.
- But maintain some intensity. Running easy for the duration of your taper may leave you feeling flat or unresponsive. Depending on your experience with speed work, you’ll want to include some faster running during your taper. This could range from strides and easy fartleks to a short tempo or some race pace miles.
- Don’t expect instant taper gratification. Just because you ease back on your total volume, don’t expect to feel amazing instantaneously! It takes time for your body to absorb and recover from previous workouts, so it’s normal to feel a little less pep in your step until the last few days of your taper.
- Expect some anxiety. For runners used to putting in longer miles every day, tapering can make you feel anxious. It’s common to suddenly start doubting your training, or even have weird phantom pains.Try to put that aside and use successful past workouts to boost your confidence.
- Enhance your recovery. To take your tapering to the next level, you can further improve your recovery with any of the following options:
- Run even slower on your easy days
- Get a massage (but not too close to race day!)
- Sleep an extra 1/2 to full hour every night
- Spend a little less time on your feet every day
- Focus on quality nutrition
Specific Taper Strategies
For the half marathon, most runners will benefit from a 2-week taper, with the final long run 2 weeks out from race day.
Taper week 1:
- Reduce mileage to 60 to 80% of your maximum volume. If your peak week was 35 miles, you would run 21-25 miles this week.
- Reduce your long run this week to about 8 to 10 miles.
- Reduce your weekday runs by 1 to 3 miles.
- Reduce mileage to about 40 to 50% of your maximum volume, not including the race itself. For a 35 mile peak week, this means running about 14 miles prior to race day.
- A short goal pace session is okay early in the week (2 to 3 miles at goal pace)
- Further shorten your weekday runs.
- Ideally rest 2 days before your race, and perform a short shakeout run (15 to 30 minutes the day before to stay loose and race-ready).
While opinions vary on the perfect taper length for a full marathon, 3 weeks can work well if you don’t make too dramatic a reduction in your mileage during the first week. Run your final long run 3 weeks out from your goal race.
Taper Week 1
- Reduce mileage to 80 to 90% of your maximum volume (If 40 miles was your peak week, decrease by 4 to 8 miles).
- Maintain intensity this week with a some faster running (a tempo run or marathon goal pace miles)
- Reduce your long run by 10 to 20%.
Taper Week 2
- Reduce mileage to 70 to 75% of your maximum volume.
- Run one medium intensity workout early in the week (e.g. 4 to 5 miles at goal pace).
- Reduce your long run by 50 to 60%.
- This week you may want one extra rest day.
- Reduce each of your usual runs by 50 to 60%
- Run strides after 1 to 2 easy runs to keep yourself feeling sharp.
- Rest 2 days before your race, and perform a short shakeout run (15 to 30 minutes) the day before.
There comes a time in your training when you can’t gain any more fitness before your race. This is when it’s time to taper.
Remember that tapering is a personal process and every runner is different. As you gain more experience, you’ll learn what works best for you. By following your training with a well-executed taper, you’ll be well on your way to a successful finish.