Practical Tapering

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Tapering is a critical part of training for a race, but getting the taper right is not simple.

1 General Running Taper

The consensus of 27 studies[1] for tapering is listed below. These guidelines are based on studies of relatively short distances, and I found no studies looking at marathon distance or greater. The sections below look at each point in a little more detail, but for more depth, see The Science of Tapering.

  • Reduce mileage exponentially
  • Do not decrease training intensity (intensity seems to be key)
  • Reduce mileage by 20-40%
  • Taper for 8-14 days
  • Keep training frequency the same may be better than reducing frequency.

1.1 Taper Pattern

Different taper patterns.

There are a number of well-established patterns for tapering.

  • The exponential taper reduces the training load using an exponential pattern and can have a fast or a slow decay. Studies have shown this is the most effective pattern.
  • A linear pattern reduces the training load by a fixed percentage of the maximum training each day.
  • A step taper reduces the training load suddenly, and then keeps it at that level for the length of the taper. This is the least effective pattern.

1.2 Training Intensity

Reducing intensity for running tapers.

The studies show that reducing training intensity during the taper period reduces your performance rather than improving it.

1.3 Mileage

Reducing mileage for running tapers.

The studies show that for runners, reducing mileage by 20-40% is optimal, though the standard tapers involve reducing by far more. The actual reduction may be dependent on the overall training mileage, with higher mileage runners requiring more of a reduction, though this is not supported by the science.

1.4 Taper Length

Taper length for running tapers.

The studies show that a length of taper of 2 weeks is ideal, and 3 weeks or longer actually produces a slightly negative change in performance compared with no taper. It has been suggested that the ideal length of taper depends on the number of hours per week spent in training, as shown in the table below, but the evidence to support this is anecdotal.

Training hours/week Days for taper
6 to 10 7
11 to 15 14
Over 15 21+

1.5 Training Frequency

Reducing mileage for running tapers.

The evidence is that keeping the same frequency of training runs during the taper produces a better improvement than reducing the frequency.

2 Final Long Run

The long run is a key aspect of endurance training, and vital for marathon and longer races. There are two suppositions that typically influence the timing of your last long run. One is the supposition that the benefit of a long run is not realized until about 3 weeks afterward, so any long runs performed within 3 weeks of the race will produce their benefit in subsequent races. However, there is little science to back up this idea. The other supposition is that a long run causes muscular damage that takes about three weeks to heal. Given the lack of scientific evidence, the following guidelines can be used.

  • If you have any noticeable soreness after your long run, leave at least 21 days between your last long run and the race.
  • If you have fatigue, but no soreness after your long run, leave about 14-21 days between your last long run and the race.
  • If you your long run has no noticeable impact, then you could do your last long run about 7-14 days before the race. However, this may be an indication that your long runs are not hard enough to produce endurance adaptations.

Note that soreness is pain in the muscle either on usage or pain when pressing on the muscle, where fatigue is weakness and inability to produce force. So if you walk down stairs and your muscles cause you pain, that would be soreness, but if your muscles are weak and you have to support yourself, that's fatigue.

3 Weekly Taper Mileage

Because we live in a world that is structured around a 7 day week, it is natural to look at weekly mileage as a measure of training stress. For the taper period, looking at weekly mileage is not terribly useful, as it tends to create a multistep taper rather than a true exponential taper. It is far better to look at daily run length and scale each day accordingly.

How weekly mileage can create a step taper.

Below is a table of percentages for a 14 day taper to 40% training load for linear and two exponential tapers. So on day 6, you’d reduce your mileage to 74% on a linear taper, to 68% on a slow exponential taper and to 64% on a fast exponential taper. If you’d run 10 miles in normal training, you’d do 7.4 miles on a linear taper, 6.8 miles on a slow exponential taper and 6.4 miles on a fast exponential taper.

Day Linear Exponential (slow) Exponential (fast)
0 100 100 100
1 96 94 92
2 91 88 86
3 87 82 79
4 83 77 74
5 79 72 69
6 74 68 64
7 70 63 60
8 66 59 56
9 61 55 53
10 57 52 50
11 53 49 47
12 49 46 44
13 44 43 42
14 40 40 40

4 Fellrnr's Personal Approach to Marathon Taper

The following is my personal advice based on anecdotal and personal experience. This approach works well for a marathon where you are focusing significant resources into an optimal performance. Obviously, running the marathon distance (or greater) does not require a taper, but performance is optimized by doing one.

  • Taper for two weeks
  • Cut out any easy paced/recovery/junk runs (if you are doing any)
  • Have the last long run at the beginning of the taper. No run past this point should have the purpose of improving endurance.
  • Avoid hard downhill running in the taper
  • Do medium length runs at marathon pace (Running at marathon pace improves your sense of pace and become comfortable at this speed)
  • Do 'easy intervals' - for instance, mile repeats at tempo pace with full recovery. The idea is to be fast enough to keep prevent detraining, but easy enough to avoid any muscle soreness. You could do harder intervals if you are confident they will not cause soreness.
  • Ideally, don't do any running at slower than marathon pace.

5 Short Race Tapers

For a short race (5K), a study[2] showed that drastically reducing training volume, while keeping intensity high can produce great gains. A 7 day taper that reduces mileage by 85% and has a decreasing number of hard intervals (7 the first day, 6 the next, etc.) produces good results. However, this type of taper tends to cause muscle soreness, which makes it less than ideal for longer races.

6 Fellrnr's Personal Ultra Tapering

Like many ultrarunners, I do far more races in a year than typical marathon runners. This race load means that a longer taper is impractical. Therefore, for a short ultra (up to 50 miles), I take the day before the race off completely and convert that week's hill training to a flat run. For longer races, I'll reduce my Monday and Wednesday runs to one hour rather than three, avoid hills and take Friday off. (I normally only run Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.)

7 Psychological effects of tapering

Main article: Taper Psychosis

Tapering has some strange and unexpected effects. You would think that lowering your training would leave you feeling great, with boundless energy and enthusiasm. For most people, the opposite is true. We feel sluggish, lethargic and slow. New aches and pains suddenly appear and we can feel like a simple walk is hard work. This can lead to fear that our fitness has disappeared, or that we have a strange new illness. In reality, I suspect this is just the fact that our bodies are used to a higher level of training stress and the lower levels feel strange. It may also be higher levels of glycogen in the muscles which make our legs feel heavy. There is also the phenomenon that the shorter runs during the taper seem much harder than expected. This is probably because that a 5 mile run is easier than a 10 mile run, we expect it to be trivial, which it's not. Whatever the explanation, for most of us tapering is not the nirvana we would like. The term 'taper psychosis' seems appropriate!

8 See also

9 References

  1. Effects of Tapering on Performance: A Meta-Analysis : Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise
  2. The effects of taper on performance in distance runners