As “America’s Marathon Weekend” approaches here in Atlanta, I’ve been thinking about the importance of a well-executed taper in relation to race results. Whether it is your first taper or your 20th, it can still be a tricky few weeks to navigate and to get just right. In other words, the elites preparing for the Olympic Team Trials have the same struggles as those preparing for the Publix Georgia Half and full Marathon.
A “taper” is defined as a period of rest and decreased training volume leading up to a race performance. With less time devoted to training and more time to think about the race, this can be a high anxiety couple of weeks. Sometimes people even report the “taper tantrums”, where they are grumpy or easily agitated.
While the taper is highly individual is different for everyone, let’s go over the framework of a successful taper to help the weeks fly by smoothly and get you to the start line happy, healthy, and ready to race!
1. Duration: The length of taper is debated quite a bit, however is usually in the 2-3 week range. If you are less experienced in the marathon, sustained an injury during training, experienced overtraining syndrome, or had high levels of life stress throughout training, a longer taper is the way to go. For a Half Marathon, it is possible that 1 week could be sufficient, however could be stretched to 2 weeks in the event of any of the factors mentioned above.
2. Intensity: Workout intensity should remain relatively stable throughout the taper period. The key elements of the training week: speedwork, tempo runs, hills, etc. should still be present, however the volume of those workouts is decreased such that it does not implicate undue stress on the body. You should be able to finish all of your workouts during taper feeling like you could do the entire workout all over again. Maintaining some intensity can help prevent anxiety and ensures that your brain is familiar with exertion. Make sure you do some running at goal pace to further boost confidence.
3. Rest: Remember that the goal of a taper is rest! When in doubt, skip the workout, sleep in, go to bed early, and skip cross training. Aim for 30 minutes-1 hour more of sleep each night, as well as higher quality sleep. Alcohol can impair sleep quality and recovery, so it is best to avoid it in the week or two leading up to the race. Focus on good nutrition and foods that work well with your digestive system. If you don’t track water intake on a regular basis, it may be helpful to set a goal for water intake so that you remain hydrated throughout the week- good race hydration starts well before toeing the start line!
4. Mental preparation: Plan out the details of the few days before the race well in advance. If you prefer to control the details, recruit those around you to help execute and set your plan in motion. If planning and details stress you out, consider allowing someone else to plan the details so that you can place your focus elsewhere. Visualize the course, and drive or visit key parts of the race beforehand if possible. Review your hydration and nutrition strategy, including what, how much, and when. Avoid trying anything new- avoid the flashy expo booths claiming the best new trend in race nutrition.
Review your goals for the race, and plan out an A, B, C, D, etc. goal. Anything can happen during a race, particularly one as long as the marathon. Reaching a “C” goal can be as much of an accomplishment as the “A” goal. Finishing a race at all is an amazing accomplishment and deserves celebration!
5.Take care of your body: Spend extra time foam rolling and stretching out tight areas. Consider getting a “tune up” visit with your PT or massage therapist to make sure your body is moving well. A common phenomenon, endearingly referred to as “phantom taper pains” are commonly reported by runners, wherein a runner experiences pain/discomfort that is unfamiliar, random, and unlike anything they experienced during training. This can be nerve-racking, as the thought of a last-minute injury could potentially derail a race. Usually, this is just a by-product of heightened bodily awareness leading up to the event, and can be managed with assurance and confidence in the body to do what it has been prepared to do!
Good luck in tapering and racing! If you are a partner of someone training for a big race, remember that it’s just taper anger and that your sweet, loving, kind, friend/significant other will be returned to you soon.
You got this!
Kacy Seynders, PT, DPT