What is tapering?

If you’re training for a marathon, a cycling tour, or one of the many triathlons on offer throughout the year, there are a few tricks which could give you the edge you need. Tapering is one of them. Six-time marathon runner, Chris Pavey, explains what it is, and how to do it. 

Tapering is used in endurance sport circles to describe the last part of your training where you start to reduce the amount of running, cycling, swimming (or all three for triathlons and Ironman triathlons) that you do in the final weeks before your event.

If you combine your taper with appropriate carb loading, it can help improve your race performance by about two to three percent, and could contribute to you smashing your personal best by anything up to five minutes or more.

Why is tapering so crucial?

For non-endurance athletes or those new to these sports, tapering might sound like a pretty good deal—lots of rest and relaxation in the weeks leading up to a race. But for many (including the elites of the sport), it’s actually one of the hardest parts of any training cycle.

There’s often a fear of losing fitness, gaining extra weight, feeling sluggish, even getting injured (some people overcompensate by pushing themselves harder in the shorter training sessions).

Tapering allows your body to recover from any muscle damage, glycogen depletion, and any underlying dehydration that the intensity of training for an endurance event can cause. Training for these types of distance events can also be quite a struggle mentally, and the taper can help ease that stress. Suddenly you have more time for family, friends and rest.

If done correctly, it can help contribute to both an increase in performance on race day and an increase in enjoyment levels.

Couple in the park resting after exercising and chatting

How do I taper correctly?

Tapering is not an exact science, and very much depends on your physiological makeup, the training plan you’re following, and the distance you’re attempting.

For a half marathon or triathlon, you’d look to do a one to two week taper and for a marathon or Ironman triathlon you’d stretch it out to two to three weeks. Current studies indicate that for best performance on race day, a two week taper for a marathon or similar intensity endurance event is usually most effective, and that you should reduce your weekly mileage by roughly 40 percent of your hardest week in the first week and 60 percent of your hardest week in the second.

So for example, for my last marathon, during my heaviest week of training (the week before my taper), I ran a total of 50 kilometres. The first week of my taper was then a 30 kilometre week and my final week before the marathon covered just 20 kilometres. If I had wanted to complete this over three weeks, I could have completed a 25 kilometre week in between.

It’s recommended that you decrease the distances in each of your training sessions to reduce the mileage, but not the number of training sessions themselves. So, if you run three times a week and swim twice a week for example, keep running three times a week and swimming twice a week throughout your taper. Another common mistake is to reduce the amount of training you’re doing by too much. Try to stick to the 40:60 rule. And don’t look to replace distance with intensity—a common misconception, and one that can lead to greater fatigue and even injury.

If you didn’t complete any speed sessions during your training weeks, don’t start completing these during your taper. Try focusing on your goal pace in these shorter training sessions. Look for pace consistency.

You may have heard of the endurance athlete’s adage, ‘Nothing new on race day’. It should be applied to tapering. Nothing new during your taper.

Good luck and happy training!

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