Tapering - How to Nail Your Next Race
(Or - how to run your first sub 4 marathon - more about that later)
The magic of tapering - it’s important both for your body and mind. Science underlines the necessity of tapering in order to improve your overall condition. Hence I am not a fitness professional (just a super crazy running chick), I am happy to share my personal experiences after more than 30 marathons and ultra marathons with a quick insight what current research says.
Benefits of tapering can include a better finishing time, reduction of potential injuries on race day as well as lowering lactic acids, strengthening of the immune system and a more joyful experience over all, with a smaller chance of hitting the wall at some point. Not yet convinced?
#2 What does RESEARCH think? (Warning: A lot of numbers!)
The Journal „Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise“ reviewed 50 studies on tapering and finds that levels of muscle glycogen, enzymes, antioxidants and hormones return to optimal ranges during your taper - hence it repairs muscle damage that often occurs during high mileage sustained training.
Another study suggests that a reduction between 60% to 90% in training volume is optimal while reducing training frequency only slightly (less than 20%). Optimal duration ranges between 4 and 28 days, depending on prior training intensity and the final distance on race day. Reduction should be conducted in a progressive nonlinear way as that is more beneficial to performance.
What kind of improvement can be expected? Performance can be improved by about 3% due to changes in the cardiorespiratory, metabolic, hematological, hormonal, neuromuscular, and psychological status.
That doesn’t sound much, but imagine you are working to hit the 4 hours marathon - in case you are slightly above, the right taper can improve your speed by about 7 minutes and help you reach your final goal.
In ultramarathon, it is even more significant: A 12 hours Comrades athlete could improve by magical 20 minutes only due to the right tapering measures!
That doesn’t sound too bad, right? So let’s check out how this works: Science mostly speaks about the numbers - how much reduction is optimal for your taper?
As a rule of thumb and out of personal experience, I taper 3-4 days before a half marathon, about 7-10 days for a full marathon and around two weeks for an ultramarathon. More than three weeks are not optimal, as that may reduce your performance. Be aware: Cut down your volume, not necessarily the intensity!
Example: In usual marathon training, you would usually incorporate one long run and maybe three other runs a week which results in about 6 hours of training, only speaking of running. When tapering, speed and intensity should only be slightly decreased, but volume can be cut down to 2-3 hours. 4 more hours to eat lol! Just kidding.
#4 What else to keep in mind
REST & SLEEP
Besides, resting is key while tapering. That includes a nice portion of sleep - set an alarm for bed time and stick to it. Make sure you catch up on the last weeks and sleep as much as you want to (Yes, I even take midday naps during taper. It feels great to give your body the rest it needs and deserves).
Probably the hardest thing for me: Staying hydrated. Place a water bottle in every possible place: Your work space, your bed table, restrooms, the kitchen. Remind yourself in every possible occasion to drink that water. My personal favorite is adding flavors such as fruits and herbs to keep it. Your body and also your fascia will appreciate it!
Taking care of you mentally is just as important! Here are my favorites in order not to go completely crazy the days before. In case your designated race is not next door, you might want to take care of the exact travel and race plans. All travels being taken care off? Hotel and shuttles booked? How about time zones and jetlag? Do you need a new SIM card? When and where is the race expo? Pasta party? Start line? So many questions to be taken care off
Not only speaking of your travels in general, a certain focus should be put on the final 24 hours before racing. Plan all your meals and treats and when you plan to sleep.
Mental training will help to stay calm. Easiest exercise? Vizualise. How will the race day look like? What is your morning routine before kicking ass? What breakfast are you craving for? Where is you mental „happy place“ you can hide when things get rough out there? What are you most excited about? Visualizing and thinking about all that will make you feel prepared and ready. And, most importantly: How will it be to cross that finish line? How do you feel? How does it look like, smell like and feel like? Take your time to create a real vision of that moment.
Treat yourself and your body: Now THAT is my favorite part. Do whatever feels good and improves your overall wellness, that can include massages, physiotherapy, Ayurveda therapy, cryotherapy, stretching and foam rolling. You have trained a lot in the past weeks and don’t want to be sore and tight in your tapering time.
My routine is to stretch everyday, to visit the cryotherapy (also known as ice sauna) everyday, to foam roll every other day and have a nice deep tissue sports massage once or twice a week.
Considering your diet: Don’t change it and confuse your body more than necessary. In general, a healthy and well balanced diet is recommended (Don’t get all stuffed with pizza and chocolate because you "will be burning it off anyway"). Moreover, our bodies are not capable of stocking carbs for a whole week anyway.
The system that I follow and which works perfectly for me is called super compensation - first, the carb storage needs to be emptied completely: I limit the carb intake to a bare minimum for some days before stocking up carbs massively 2-3 days before race day (Hint: Also, it’s important not to eat too much carbs then as that only makes your tired and stores a lot of water). As a result, the body might be able to store slightly more carbs and energy for race day! It makes me feel energized and ready for the race.
#6 WHAT I USE
1. Foam rollers are not a secret anymore, but I love these "double balls" as they totally reach other corners of your feet (most important area to work on for me) - I use them 5-10 minutes every day mostly on the inner corners to help relax the fascia there.
2. One thing my physiotherapist showed me - a vibrating foam roller, that allows to torture your muscles and fascia way deeper and more intense. It's a bit pricey and I have not bought it yet, but I love to get it onto my muscles or for relaxing my fascia especially at my calves.
3. I am always on a rush and hate to carry plastic bottles due to environmental and practical reasons. Hence, I have several nice water bottles matching different outfits and moods to make it MAXIMUM easy to stay hydrated. No more excuses!
What are your routines and tips during the taper? Let me know!
PS. For the novices here - find more tips on marathons and running here