Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Art and Science of Tapering

This is the first time I have made it to the end of a training cycle having fully completed my training plan (other cycles have been undisciplined toward the end) and having stayed injury (and accident) free! Horary! So now I am 10 days away from race day (Silver Strand Half Marathon) and feeling strong, fit, and healthy. Navigating uncharted waters, I think it is time to taper?!

There is surprisingly little information about tapering in most of my running reference books. On the blogosphere, I am seeing runners reporting “taper tantrums” from lack of running. But I’m not finding much information about how to taper, for how long, and why.

So I turned to the running Bible: Tim Noakes’ Lore of Running (4th ed. 2001) for . . .

The Science of Tapering

Tapering is the process of resting up before a major race. Runners discovered tapering by accident. History is replete with examples of runners being forced to rest due to sickness or injury in the weeks prior to their events and then having breakthrough performances.  The most famous, perhaps, was Carlos Lopes who won Olympic gold at the 1984 games in the marathon after an accident prevented him from training for 10 days prior to the race.  Another Olympic example is Joan Benoit.  She won the 1984 United States Olympic marathon trials only days after undergoing knee surgery. Benoit later said that she thinks her knee injury was the single most important factor that led to her victory:  it forced her to train less throughout the training cycle.  Noakes at 321-22.

So for the niggled/injured runners late in their fall training cycles, maybe your injury is a gift, and you'll have a breakthrough performance in your race. Stay positive!

There are also scientific studies to support the practice of tapering as having positive effects on race performance. But there have been no studies specific to half marathons or marathons. Noakes concludes that according to the few studies on tapering, a taper is most effective when “there is a rapid reduction in training volume . . . in the first few days of the taper and training during the taper is at high intensity, approximating 5-km race pace.” Id. at 321.

Noakes also believes from personal experience that the harder and/or longer your training cycle, the longer you’ll need to taper.  Id. at 621.  And further, the longer the race distance, the longer the taper.  Id. at 653.

Noakes’ book excerpts half marathon and marathon training plans written by many different experts.  Most half marathon plans include a 1 week taper. Most marathon plans include a 2 week taper. Ultras and ironman races, by comparison, may have up to a 4 week taper.

So that leaves us to figure out our tapers by feel . . .

The Art of Tapering

Peasant Woman Holding a Taper
by Jules Breton [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The goal is to find the sweet spot between giving your body enough rest to allow a full recovery of the muscles and avoiding a loss of fitness.

Right now I am feeling fit but tired. So I am less worried about losing fitness and more worried about getting enough rest. I think a slightly longer than the standard 1 week half marathon taper is in order.  

I am thinking of tapering along these lines: 
  • Run no more than 15 miles during the taper period. But no running the last 3 days before the race. This means for my last week of training, I’ll cut my average weekly mileage over the last 7 weeks by 50% (I had been running roughly 30 miles per week).
  • I am going to cut out leg weight workouts and plyo completely.
  • I’ll keep up with core because those muscles are secondary in running and, for me, seem to recovery quickly after workouts.
  • I’ll add another light yoga class next week to stay stretched out (and to give me something to do in place of running). 
Taper Plan 
  1. Friday – normally scheduled rest day
  2. Saturday – tempo run at race pace, no more than 5 miles
  3. Sunday – 3 miles easy
  4. Monday – yoga
  5. Tuesday – mile repeats, no more than 4 miles
  6. Wednesday – 3 miles easy, core
  7. Thursday – yoga
  8. Friday – rest
  9. Saturday – rest
  10. Sunday – race
Let the taper begin!

Any advice for a successful taper? What kind of taper has worked for you?


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