A taper can be a long-awaited respite from the rigors of hard training or an unwelcome dose of pre-race nerves, brought on by the extra energy that accompanies a drop in mileage and intensity. How can you be certain that you are rested enough before a big race without dropping mileage so low that you feel stale at the starting line? The answer depends on the distance you're racing, your goals for that specific event and your experience level.
What Is a Taper?
Before deciding if, when and how to taper before your next goal event, you need to learn what constitutes a well-structured taper.
The most recognizable component of the taper is the decrease in mileage, which serves to lessen your training load and keep your legs fresh for the big race. You strive to run at your highest capacity when you are at the peak of training—you often push your mileage right up to our "glass ceiling," the point at which your body will break down from the stress of too much running. Riding the red line is what makes you a better athlete, but in order to get the most out of your body on race day, you need to decrease your mileage just before the event.
The percentage of mileage decrease varies widely from athlete to athlete and race to race, and should ultimately be decided between athlete and coach. Some athletes reduce mileage by as little as 15 to 20 percent during a taper while others reduce by as much as 40 to 50 percent.
Runners who race to achieve time goals focus not only on high mileage but also on intense workouts at a hard pace, ranging from shorter sprint intervals to longer sustained efforts at a more moderate pace. Hard workouts flood the leg muscles with lactic acid, creating soreness and stiffness. In order to reach the starting line of a big race with fresh legs that have some snap in them, it is important to give your body a break from the intense workouts.
Many athletes complete 1 to 2 hard workouts each week in addition to long runs and easy efforts. A tapered race week generally calls for a shorter long run and one light workout 3 to 5 days before the race.
Non-running elements of the taper include proper nutrition (often including an emphasis on carbohydrates before a long race), hydration and recovery such as ice bathing, foam rolling and massage.
Carbo-loading, or increased intake of carbohydrates before a big race, helps to top off the body's energy stores with fuel that can be used during the race.
Ice bathing, foam rolling and massage keep the legs clear of lactic acid and inflammation in the days leading up to the race.