By Jason Koop, CTS Coaching Director, Author of “Training Essentials for Ultrarunning”
For many athletes, tapering before a major goal event is a double-edged sword. On the one hand they are happy about the lightened training load, but on the other they are sometimes anxious or distressed by the reduction in training volume. Athletes have two primary fears during the taper process: detraining and missing out on time they could be using for additional training. These fears sometimes lead to a phenomenon we humorously refer to as “Taper Tantrums”. To avoid taper tantrums and get to the start line of your event in the best possible condition, he are some things you need to know about tapering.
What is a taper and how much will it improve performance?
Iñigo Mujika, a highly regarded sports physiologist known for his work on tapering and detraining, defined tapering as “a progressive nonlinear reduction of the training load during a variable period of time, in an attempt to reduce the physiological and psychological stress of daily training and optimize sports performance” (Mujika and Padilla 2003). In plain English it’s a pre-event period wherein you manipulate training intensity and volume to get more rest and the right amount of hard work to enhance your race day fitness and confidence.
While tapering is important, many athletes and coaches overestimate the effect it will have on performance. Mujika and Padilla found that a properly constructed taper can improve performance by 3%. That’s significant, but keep in mind that is 3% compared to no taper at all. The reason I don’t stress too much over building the perfect taper is there isn’t much to be gained from perfection here. A reasonable taper gets you most of the way there (1.5-2%), especially because the psychological aspect of tapering is so important. Stressing over it is counterproductive.
Tapering Guidelines for Ultrarunning
In the spirit of keeping things simple I am not going to go into great depth about each of these steps, but I do want to go over them briefly to illustrate that tapering is more than just resting.
- Train: No amount of tapering will make up bring undertrained.
- Begin taper 2-3 weeks prior to goal event.
- Reduce training load quickly at first, then gradually as the race approaches.
- Reduce overall volume (shorten runs first, then reduce frequency)
- Reduce amount of intensity (minutes or number of interval)
- Maintain intensity level (go hard, just not as long)
- Maintain specificity (you’re still preparing for a running race…)
Intensity and specificity are of the biggest keys to a successful taper. Athletes often make the mistake of reducing both volume and intensity. They simple do less overall. While that can be better than overdoing it, the goal should be to reduce training volume and volume-at-intensity (time spent at interval intensity), but not the actual intensity of the intervals you do. Some athletes also start incorporating new and novel activities during their taper, which is an odd time to add something new. Many times the intent is to optimize recovery or squeak out another marginal improvement. But you’ve already done 98% of your training; you have the fitness you’re going to have for race day. The best thing you can do during a taper is to stay specific to the terrain, grades, and surfaces you’re going to race on.
Dealing with Taper Tantrums
The physical component of tapering isn’t all that difficult, nor does it need to be particularly precise. The more difficult aspect of tapering is its impact on mood and behavior. After months of progressive and difficult training, asking a runner to significantly reduce running volume and overall training load for 2-3 weeks can represent a major lifestyle change. You have time on your hands, and you have time to dwell on your upcoming race, whether you’re ready for it, etc. Athletes get antsy, irritable, and full of doubt. They sometimes do foolish things like trying to cram in extra training, for fear they are losing their fitness or were not fit enough to start with. My advice is to trust your training. Look back over what you’ve done to be ready. Have confidence in your preparation so you can rest with confidence in the final few weeks.
I asked some of the athletes I work with to provide their personal taper advice, as well as the story of their worst taper tantrum. Here’s a selection of their responses:
Bio: First athlete to complete Grand Slam of Ultrarunning and Iroman World Championships in the same year.
Advice: I use the extra time to go over logistics, tactics, packing lists, itineraries, etc. I try to dote on my support crew, especially my wife.
Worst tantrum: My wife’s tantrum, actually, but I was definitely part of it. I got busy at work and was inattentive the night we were packing for the race. There wwere some tears and one “I’m not going to race!” and then we got it together and she had a good time.
Bio: Podium finisher Hardrock 100, North Face Endurance Challenge 50-Miler, and Squamish 50-Miler.
Advice: I try to keep my normal training schedule, just with less work. I find the routine helpful. I’m careful not to overdo it once I start feeling really good. It’s hard to be patient and save that good feeling for race day, but I have seen too many athletes set new PRs a week before racing and then fall flat on race day.
Worst tantrum: Turning a 1 hour shakeout run in Chamonoix into a 3.5-hour run/hike.
Bio: Winner and course record at 100 miles of Istria, course record and win at Tarawera Ultramarathon, and win at Ultra-Trail Australia
Advice: Prepare for your taper ahead of time. I use the anticipation of the taper as motivation for my last big training block. I work really hard so I’m looking forward to the recovery by the time the taper starts. I also think it’s a good idea to have hobbies outside of running. Use the newfound time to read a new book, explore new music, etc.
Worst tantrum: I generally don’t suffer from severe taper tantrums. As much as I love running, I also love the periods of rest that come after really productive and difficult training blocks. The things I do struggle with are pretty minor. I’ve over-indulged in the food and drinks, I’ve felt under-prepared without justification, and I’ve definitely struggled with a general sense of laziness and restlessness that can come from dramatically reducing training volume. I’ve gotten better at dealing with it over the years and I usually welcome some rest when taper time arrives
Keep your taper simple, keep yourself mentally busy, trust your training, and then go race and have fun!