Ask any runner what their number one goal is for a race and you'll likely hear, "I want to run fast!" Running your fastest race ever requires really good training, but there's an often overlooked part of training that's crucial to setting a new personal record: the taper.
A taper is the reduction in running at the end of your training cycle that lets you recover and maximize your performance on race day.
As illustrated by Blue Mango in the "Stress Adaptation" graph, tapering takes advantage of the stress-adaptation cycle.
The body needs about two weeks to "absorb" a hard workout. That's what you see when the fitness line dips in the graph—the fatigue you normally feel after a speed workout or long run. During this period you're often tired, sore, or your muscles are tight.
More: Recovery Tips for Runners
When you take this time to recover from the stress of running hard, your body adapts and becomes stronger, more efficient, and ultimately faster. This is called "supercompensation," and is exactly when you want to run your important race!
How to Taper and Peak Effectively
Dramatically reducing overall mileage and intensity is not the best way to peak and feel your best on the starting line. In fact, you may feel flat if you take this strategy. Instead, your legs need to remember how to run fast.
More: How to Run Fast: 3 FAQs
It's best to reduce mileage strategically on some runs while maintaining it on others. A 10- to 20-percent reduction in overall mileage often works best during the two weeks before your race. Your body will recover quickly with only this modest decrease, and you may feel surprised by how good you feel.
Mileage is only part of the puzzle, though. Fast workouts must also be dialed down to prevent you from running too fast, for too long. About two weeks before your race you should run a race-specific workout that mimics the demands of your goal race. If you're completing 5K training, that might be 3 x mile @ 5K pace with 1 to 2 minutes recovery. You can see how this particular workout is very similar to a 5K race. If you can run this successfully, you’re ready to run your next 5K PR.
More: 3 Ways for Advanced Runners to Achieve a PR
Your final taper week should include a workout of similar intensity, but much shorter so you don't go into your race with too much fatigue in your legs. Following our 5K example, you might run 3 x 800 meters at 5K pace + 4 x 400m @ 3K pace with 1 to 2 minutes recovery.