An important piece of training that many new runners forget to calculate into their program is the taper. Taper is the reduction in training load before a competition in order to optimize performance on race day. In other words, the period of rest before race day to reduce the effects of muscle fatigue brought on by months of rigorous training.
During marathon training your muscle power diminishes, glycogen stores are depleted and overall muscle fatigue is accumulated. The tapering period is simply to minimize the negative effects of a long distance training schedule.
Also, your muscles will be fresh and fatigue-free on race day, greatly reducing your chance of injury.
What are the benefits of tapering?
- Bolstering immune system to lower your risk of being sick on race day
- Improving running economy — the oxygen needed to run at a given pace
- Replenishing glycogen stores so you have the necessary amount of fuel stored in your body on race day
- Repairing damaged muscle tissue, which restores muscle fibers and allows them to work their best when you need them the most
- Reducing psychological stresses of training, which will help you be mentally strong on race day
- Improving quality of sleep so that you get the rest you need leading up to the race
How do we properly define rest in terms of the taper? How do we make sure our taper is helping our performance rather than hurting it?
A meta-analysis of 27 studies published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise reveals that, “A tapering intervention of two weeks, where the training volume is progressively decreased by 41–60 percent, without modifying the training intensity or frequency, is the strategy that will maximize the probability to obtain significant improvements in performance.”
So what does that mean?
Training volume can be altered through decreasing the duration of each training session. The most common way to do this is to reduce the number of miles run per training session. According to this meta-analysis, we should progressively decrease our mileage in the two weeks leading up to race day by 41-60 percent of the peak training volume.
How do you calculate your rate of progression during the taper?
Take, for instance, running two or three 6-mile runs during the week for your peak training period. As you taper, you will want to drop that mileage by 41-60 percent, which is approximately 2.5 to 3.5 miles.
Calculating 41 percent of 6 miles: 6x0.41=2.46, so 6-2.46=3.54 miles
Calculating 60% of 6 miles: 6x0.60=3.6, so 6-3.6=2.4 miles
In order to progressively decrease your mileage throughout the two-week taper, the first week of the taper should be decreased to 3-4 miles per run and the second week should be decreased to 2-3 miles per run in order to maximize your potential on race day.
The final important piece of the meta-analysis findings is that you should not change the intensity or frequency of your training during the taper. In other words, if you are running four times per week during your peak training, you should continue to run 4 times per week. Additionally, if you are training at a 10-minute mile pace, you should continue to train at that pace during the taper.
Alyssa Baker is a Mayo Clinic Health System in Mankato wellness facilitator and Mayo Clinic certified wellness coach. She is an avid runner and regularly trains Mayo Clinic Health System employees for half marathon races.