The Magic of the Taper

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For YEARS, I had no idea what I was during the taper. I dreaded it because I felt forced to run less – which makes me crabby. If I willingly take a rest day or two, I’m fine with it. But when I feel like I’m being forced, I get irrationally annoyed and anxious.

The taper was also a time when I second guessed my goals. My confidence, which was usually fairly high, dropped and as a result, I did MANY things that ended up working against me on race day (running too much, going too fast, cross training, etc).

I don’t know if I would say that I enjoy the taper now, but I do look forward to it, in a way. I’m usually counting down the days until it’s time to ease up because of how hard I’m pushing. It symbolizes the end of a long, hard training cycle and the start of race week preparation.

Of course, I still have moments of doubt during the taper. Those thoughts of “I’m huffing and puffing walking up one flight of stairs. How am I going to run x:xx pace for 26.2 miles or 13.1 miles or 3.1 miles next week?” Or the “This pace feels so hard and it’s so much slower than my goal pace. Ugh.”

But I’ve come to accept that these feelings and thoughts are normal and expected. And rather than fight them or do things to disprove these thoughts, I am better at trusting the process.

I view the taper as a necessary means to the end. It’s a way to charge my batteries. It’s the final part in a successful training cycle. And I don’t want to throw away the race before it even starts.

The goal on race day is to start the race at 100%. You want to have as much as that battery charged as possible, so that you have more to rely on in the later miles. Anything that goes against the taper will decrease my battery on race day. Things like running too fast, running too often or too long, not getting enough sleep, eating poorly will all affect my battery’s life.

If you taper correctly, you should be running faster on race day then you ever do during training (for similar distances).

Take last weekend for example.

My LT (Lactate threshold) tempos are anywhere from 4-5 miles. These are “run pretty hard” kind of runs – not race effort, but definitely close. Two weeks before the NYC Half, I did a 5 mile LT progression tempo – starting on the slower end and then picking up the pace. I averaged 6:39 pace for the 5 miles. It was my fastest 5 miles on the roads – EVER and I could not have been more ecstatic with the run.

5 mile tempo

Last Sunday I ran (per Garmin) 13.19 miles at a 6:41 average. Basically the same pace and more than 2.5 times as far. paces2One of the biggest reasons? I had a successful taper.

If you do it correctly, the taper could be magical. You will be rested, tapered, carbed up (if necessary). You will be able to run paces you don’t see in training. Or run further. Or run stronger. If you do it incorrectly, you will show up to the start line and feel fatigued and not be fully charged and ready to go.

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So how do you execute a successful taper? This is the tough part because it varies runner to runner and race to race. What works for one may not work for another. So here is what I have found works for me:

  • Slow it down: This begins race week for a marathon, 3-4 days out from a half, and less for shorter distances, I start to slow down on my easy runs. Even a difference of 10-15 sec/mile works wonders. There are no more fast finishes. No miles where I want to see what a pace feels like. And no runs where I come back and realize it’s close to my goal pace. Slower is better.
  • Gradually reduce daily mileage: If it’s not a workout or long run, my daily mileage is usually 7-8 miles. So starting 4-5 days out from a marathon and 2-3 days out for a half, I start reducing the mileage. Instead of 7-8, I do 6-7, then 4-5, then 3-4 and then 20 minutes. It’s just enough to keep your legs moving and not stiffening up from lack of movement without taking away anything from your batteries.
  • Nothing new: This isn’t a time to try workout classes that you’ve been eyeing or to get back into cross-training. Yes, you will be running less. But that doesn’t mean you need to fill that time with other forms of exercise.
  • Reduce strength/core work: I cut out strength work one week out and core work about 5 days out. I want to give my muscles plenty of time to recover and feel fresh on race day.
  • Increase sleep: I try to aim at increasing sleep by even 30-45 minutes during race week and then try really hard to get a good night’s sleep two nights out. It’s common and normal to not sleep well the night before a race, but it’s most important to get a solid 8+ hours two nights out.
  • Adjust diet / increase water: I kept my diet the same in the days leading up to the NYC Half, with the exception of race eve dinner (opted for spaghetti and chicken rather than chicken and potato). For marathons, I start 2-3 days out. For anything less than a half, I don’t change my diet at all. Water intake increases beginning race week (don’t just wait until the day before – it will be too late!).

What is your best taper tip? Do you love or hate the taper?

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    9 thoughts on “The Magic of the Taper

    1. I used to really have a strong disdain for taper. Like, hatred. But I’ve really grown to love it, and look forward to it. Maybe its because I train more now, or that I’m training more properly…but I feel like I did my job if I’m tired at the end of peak and ready for taper. I use taper to get ready for the race in the other ways besides running. More sleep, travel planning, meal planning, race weekend prep, run errands that I didn’t have time for before but will help me stress less. focus on what I CAN control.
      Laura recently posted..Johnny’s Running of the Green 2016My Profile

    2. Great post! I’m doing a small taper for a HM coming up this weekend, so this was very timely! And I breathed a sigh of relief to see that my strategy is similar to yours… I must be on the right track!

      Love that finish line photo of you! Such joy! Congrats on the PR!
      Kristine recently posted..Training Recap: March 21-27My Profile

    3. I think I’m one of the few people who LOVES tapering. After 3 marathons, I learned that feeling sluggish and having all kinds of new pains (I don’t know about you, but I ALWAYS experience phantom pains during tapering) is normal at this point and I shouldn’t worry about it.
      I see tapering as my reward for all the hard training I did and I take advantage of it to do all the stuff I have zero time doing during marathon training like RELAXING. Sounds silly, but I really look forward to just having more time to just relax. I also like taking advantage of this extra time to plan my nutrition for marathon week and finalize my race strategy. By the time tapering starts, you should 100% know where you stand at in terms of goals and start planning your race around that.
      Lastly, knowing that tapering is approaching helps me giving my very best during those last weeks of hard training. Even today at the track, I was like: “come on, give it all you have, it’s only your second to last speed work session before the marathon!”
      I do a two-week taper for the marathon, but I have my longer long run 3 weeks out. I stop cross-training 2 weeks out and I stop yoga and strength/core training one week out.

    4. Taper is such a tricky subject. There are some races, my taper goes perfectly and some races I’m left with little to no energy on race day. My half marathons have always gone well and I’ve tapered well but both full marathons I’ve felt like I was left with limited energy.

      I’m so glad it worked for you Michele and when I see your race photos, I smile. You truly deserve that PR!
      Hollie recently posted..Shamrock Half Marathon (1:26.50)My Profile

    5. I must admit that defining marathon race pace is confusing. I do tempos at a 9:00 min/mile and easy runs at 12:00 min/mile. I’ve been aiming to run my marathon at 11:00 min/mile avg. However, the statement “If you taper correctly, you should be running faster on race day then you ever do during training” makes me wonder if I should be aiming for a faster goal pace. Slightly confused and would love to hear thoughts on this!

      • Hmmm…maybe I need to reword that section. I think it’s a bit misleading. Thank you for mentioning it! So my goal marathon pace is likely going to be around 7:05-7:15. I do tempos much faster than this but I’ll never run longer runs at the lower end of this pace. My long run this past weekend was 7:35 pace – so 20-30 seconds slower.
        nycrunningmama recently posted..The Magic of the TaperMy Profile