Updated: February 26th, 2022
How to successfully taper for your race distance

Tapering has baffled many runners for many years. The more runners you talk to, the more ideas, concepts and versions of tapering exist; some take it easy and bask in the rest, the others keep a certain level of intensity. Many report falling ill and doing everything to rid the cold before race day.
So what do YOU do? And What IS tapering anyway?

What is ‘tapering’?

Tapering is a training term relating to the final week or two of your training plan. It systemically reduces your exercise intensity and load for the lead up to your race day. It’s vital in endurance sports such as training for a marathon because it allows the body to rest and recuperate energy to fly on race day.

Like I said, almost every runner will taper differently, but knowing WHERE to start, is a good start. Personally speaking, I drop to about 4 easy runs and a gym session two weeks before the race, shortening that to 3 runs and more yoga/stretch sessions (absolutely NO gym workouts) throughout the week of the race.

I know what you’re thinking ‘surely taking two weeks off will hinder my race day performance?’ I’m here to tell you, no. The pro’s make tapering their utmost priority because when training long term for a half marathon, full 26.2 or further, the months and months of daily training and preparation you have done will accumulate to race day success, not resting up the week or two before. In fact, rest is more important at that point of the game.

Learn to taper, not rest

With tapering you are still moving, it is not 2 weeks completely off. The goal is simply to keep all the hard-earned physical adaptations of your training so far whilst also recharging to avoid fatigue, muscle soreness, injuries and burnout.

A lot of runners don’t understand tapering OR incorporate it in their training, so don’t worry if this is a new concept – I’ll take you through it step by step…

How long do I need to taper for?

Good question. And depending on your race distance will depend on how long you taper for. Too long of a taper and you feel unprepared and sluggish, not long enough will leave you totally fatigued for race day. The ideal taper time for each distance is:

  • 5k – 10k: 7 – 10 days
  • Half marathon: 7 – 12 days
  • Marathon– Ultramarathon: 14 days

The aging runner

How to successfully taper for your upcoming race

It’s a fine line between tapering and total rest. Tapering means you still have runs scheduled, almost like active recovery – light, but productive to help your body…

  • Remove strength training and any gym workout for the week of the race – keep body weight pre-habilitation and mobility sessions (such as yoga or stretching) but nothing too strenuous. The last thing you need is micro-tears in the muscles caused by lifting weights, and then go full-speed ahead into a 5K race and break down the muscle even further – so let your muscles rest and repair to the max during your taper.
  • Decrease mileage covered throughout the week – Not too drastically that you feel unable to cover the distance on race day, or that gets you ill, but enough to help your body get ready for the race. Some will only lessen slightly (80% of normal mileage) whilst others prefer a significantly higher drop (we’re talking 50-60% of normal weekly mileage). My advice is if this is your first time tapering opt for the 50-60% drop in the volume of training – simply because its better to feel undertrained than overtrained when you get to that start line (and we both know you are NOT under-trained, just your mean little mind telling you so). Alternatively, follow your race plan – if it is Heart Rate based, then the zones (intensity) will drop with the time on your feet also, and it’s calculated in a way that will serve YOU best – so don’t go rogue, stick to the race plan.
  • If you’re used to training or being active 5 days a week, then keep it that way throughout the tapering week (or weeks) – However, instead of running 5 times a week on the final tapering week, run for 3 but go walking for the other two. Don’t change your schedule too dramatically! No new stimulus this week please, so best to avoid playing basketball or cycling this week – stick to what you’ve been doing so far.
  • Get comfortable shoes

  • Mentally prepare – this is something that more often than not is overlooked in running but not in other sports (and I’m not too sure why that is). Mentally preparing for your race is half the battle. Especially if you’re after a PB 5K or first marathon attempt, you’re going to need your mental edge. During tapering, I like to visualise the race, how I want it to go, how I want to feel. I come up with scenarios and formulate a plan, so my pre-race jitters don’t get the best of me. I visualise everything step-by-step, from bag drop-off, getting lost on route, to finishing the race still feeling strong and collecting the all-important finishers medal hardly breaking a sweat (it helps you sleep better too, I find).
  • Take the time to prepare. – The evening before my races, I make sure my bag is packed with everything I need, and it’s ready to go. Absolutely NO scrambling around in the morning getting stressed! I have my kit laid out so I don’t even have to think. I can focus on drinking enough water and fuelling correctly.

Be prepared meme

What about B and C races?

If you are using another race as part of your training plan (known as a B race, adding another would be a C race, etc etc) then you will not need to taper for that so much. For example, for marathon training, if you have a half marathon race on week 6 of your plan, you would not need to drastically taper two weeks before that day, just continue your plan as normal, with an extra day before and after should you feel the need.

Happy tapering!
Let us know how you taper, what works best for you? And what do you avoid throughout tapering?

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