It’s race week and if you’re an athlete, you know what that means. Call it what you want: tapering, peaking. Most everyone agrees it works, is necessary and can improve your race day performance, but how exactly do you do it? Every coach and every athlete seems to have their own opinion.
And maybe it is personal. What works for one, might not work for another.
Unlike a lot of training, it is more art than science. This can freak people out that are used to following a plan and a routine.
Here are the how’s and why’s for the strategies I follow during race week.
It’s not all art. There is some science. A paper published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine reviewed more than 50 scientific studies on tapering to find out whether tapering improves performance, and how to go about it. The review showed that there is no question tapering works. Most studies found an improvement of about 3% when athletes reduced their training before competition.
Ok, so reduce your training leading up to your event so that your body and mind are fresh. Makes sense. But how long do you taper and how much do you adjust your workload?
It mostly depends on your event. Too short a taper will leave you tired on race day, while tapering for too long will lead to a loss of fitness. Therefore, it is probably wiser to err on the side of tapering too much than not enough. Finding the right balance for you and your event might take experience and experimentation over time.
Don’t make the common mistake of dropping your volume too much. This takes your body out of its routine and can leave you stale on race day.
Cut back on mileage, keep the intensity
The scientific evidence clearly indicates that the key to effective tapering is to substantially cut back your mileage, but to still maintain training intensity. Reducing overall mileage has the greatest impact on lessening accumulated fatigue.
The best way to reduce your mileage is to reduce the distance of your workouts substantially, but to cut back only moderately on the number of runs per week. Don’t make the common mistake of dropping your volume too much. This takes your body out of its routine and can leave you stale on race day.
Trust the training, trust the taper
Most obviously, you see a big difference in your running after tapering because your legs are rested and less fatigued than they were throughout the training cycle. However, this is not the main physiological benefit of tapering. As you decrease your training volume, your body has more time to recover from the hard training cycle. It is during recovery that your body produces physiological gains from the workouts.
During the recovery that takes place during tapering, blood volume and red blood cell count increase. Some runners may even experience an increase in VO2max and running economy. Tapering also increases the amount of glycogen available for your muscles. Glycogen is what powers your muscles, especially during endurance events, so essentially tapering is adding extra fuel to your muscles.
Don’t forget diet and sleep
Nutrition and sleep play significant roles in recovery during your training, and this applies as well to your taper. Aim to get eight or more hours of sleep each night in the week leading up to the race, as sleep is vital to full recovery. In terms of food, you want to strike a balance of eating nutrient-rich and carbohydrate-rich foods while avoiding foods that can cause GI distress.
Tapering works, but it’s not easy. In fact, for many runners learning how to cut back on training, recover just enough to incorporate the fitness gains of training and hit a peak performance on race day is the toughest part of their training block. It can vary by event, by distance, by training volume, but it does work.
Finding the right approach for you might take some time. You might hit some race days flat. Take note of your taper week along with the rest of your training.
For me this week, I’ll still be biking, running and swimming, but I’ll be dropping my total mileage by about 20 percent, but not the intensity. I’ll also make sure I’m getting plenty of sleep each night and recovering properly after each workout. It’s not a guarantee, but it’s the best I can do.
Oh and I’ll be smiling. Smiling makes you feel better. And you should be feeling good doing into your race!