Conversations on the topic of ‘the taper’ can often be heard around the start or finish areas of races that would normally take place at this time of the year. No doubt you will have listened to or said the following at some point; “I’m training through this one”, “yeah, I didn’t even taper” and “I ran a normal mileage week so I’m surprised I went so well”. In the current pandemic we sadly won’t be hearing any of this, but with no normal track season to build for and all spring half marathons/marathons gone it could however be a good time to look back through training diaries to reflect and review and improve your taper strategy. Ask the question, “why did I run so well here?”, “why didn’t I feel good when I tapered for this?”. Of course, there may be a multitude of factors and reasons, but often a pattern will occur and you may see what really works for you instead going through another spring season of random experimentation.
With the athletes I coach the taper always relates to the training load preceding the race. How tired are they? What is the accumulated fatigue level? Other factors like altitude can come in to play for elite athletes too, where training in a hypoxic environment adds another fatigue element. It’s also essential to determine if the race is important and does the athlete really have to taper for it?
Races can be used to train through if the benefits outweigh the potential negatives. They can be a great way to hone tactics or form part of a hard training day. You will also see many elite athletes now that back off only slightly for a few days to do a less important race but then add a session straight afterwards or even add another race later in a track programme. This can be beneficial as you can sometimes get a super compensation effect from big days like this, it can also provide a truer indicator of where your current fitness might be without just relying on training data. The negatives of a poor race performance however when not tapered (and tired) could affect confidence or even cause injury through racing in an over fatigued state. As a coach I always weigh up the options and reasons behind a race and carefully take them into consideration of whether it’s worth it at that point in a season.
If you have trained hard and are looking to perform at your best, then it is advisable you taper for most middle- and long-distance running events. There is a huge number of taper examples available through the internet and media platforms that can sometimes be overwhelming, but data suggests that for an elite athlete a reduction of 30-40% of total volume in the final 7 days has positive results. A study by Spilsbury et al. (2014) also found that long distance and marathon runners tended to increase interval intensity over the final days of the taper too.
The taper really is individual though, and I would encourage all athletes and coaches to communicate well about what makes the athlete feel good both physiologically and psychologically in the final days or weeks leading into a race and find what really works. Some of the athletes I coach run high training volumes (10km – Marathon runners) in excess of 100mpw and have been doing for years. They often only really taper for key races and like to keep a consistent training volume through less important ones. Simply taking a Friday and Saturday easy for this type of athlete is enough to freshen them up for a lower key Sunday race. For example, Ross Millington recently ran a PB of 62:33 for the half marathon at the Big Half running 85 miles that week instead of his normal 100-115mpw as he was building for the London Marathon, and that was enough for him to race well despite being in a heavy training load and feeling tired. The Marathon taper often requires more than just a week and 2-3 weeks is recommended. As an example, Jonny Mellor ran weeks of 102/82/76 mpw for the final 3 weeks of his 2:10.03 PB in February at the Seville Marathon with some higher speed (10km pace) interval sessions included in those final weeks. His normal training volume in a marathon build up is 110-120mpw.
So, there is no real secret session or exact recipe for the taper. It all depends on what you have done with regards to training volume preceding the race and carefully including a lighter volume high intensity session (relative to race pace) in the final week. Remember that good communication skills between the athlete and coach, backing off volume (30-40%) in the final week and simply trusting the training will usually do the job!