You're in a training groove. Your race is only a few weeks away. You feel great and you're hooked. As race day gets closer, you're told to cut back, settle down, and stop training so hard.
Quite the downer, isn't it? You might want to go out and run 12 miles the week before your half marathon. But there's good reason to reconsider: Tapering is better for both your body and mind.
A taper is defined as a short-term reduction in training in the period leading up to an event. This is achieved by decreasing the amount and intensity of your training.
A typical marathon-training plan suggests athletes complete their last long run—typically 21 or 22 miles—three weeks before race day. The runner should then cut back significantly each week. Two weeks before the race, drop your long run to 12 miles. One week out, reduce it to eight miles. Mid-week workouts should also be cut down, with the expectation that your body will be refreshed and ready to go on race day.
But does it really work for your body? And what does the routine change do to your mind?
Dozens of studies over the years have analyzed the effect a taper has on an athlete, and not surprisingly, those results line up with the widely accepted beliefs that exist today. No matter how much you itch to get out there, tapering is the best approach for optimal race-day performance.
Here are answers to three common concerns you may have about tapering:
Will My Fitness Level Deteriorate?
The short answer is no. If you taper the right way, your fitness level won't deteriorate. Some studies show it may actually improve.
In endurance athletes, performance capabilities can be accurately measured by VO2 max, which is the body's maximum capacity for transporting and using oxygen during exercise. A study concluded that a reasonable taper (7 to 21 days, depending on the race distance) improved performance and had no effect on VO2 max.
Houmard's findings confirmed a study by B. Shepley, who tried three different tapers on middle-distance runners and found VO2 max unaffected in all three.
Likewise, Shepley found the running time to fatigue increased in a high-intensity, low-volume taper conducted on three of the nine runners. The other two types of tapers had no effect on running time to fatigue.