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Self Magazine: Do You Really Need to Taper Before a Big Race?

Published on November, 16th 2017
By Greg Wells

By Cindy Kuzma.

This article appeared on Self Magazine here.

You stay up late cramming for exams (or you did, when you were in school). Big presentation or performance? Be honest—you’ve rehearsed over and over, sometimes until the second you take the podium or stage. But when it comes to preparing for a marathon or other race, the best strategy is exactly the opposite, exercise scientists and coaches say.

Tapering—dialing back your training right before a big competition—can give you an edge on race day, exercise physiologist Greg Wells, Ph.D., author of Superbodies: Peak Performance Secrets from the World’s Best Athletes, tells SELF. “It’s counterintuitive, because a lot of people want to train right up until the last minute, get in that one last workout,” he says. “But the research and evidence suggest that that’s probably the last thing you actually should be doing.”

In fact, studies suggest that if you do it right, tapering can provide an average 3 percent performance boost. Over the course of 26.2 miles, that adds up—taking nearly 10 minutes off your finishing time, if you’re running a four- to five-hour marathon. (That’s, of course, provided you’ve put in the requisite pavement-pounding to prepare—more on that in a sec.)

Though you might be doing less running during the taper period, your body is still hard at work getting you ready for competition.

To wrap your head around why tapering is so effective, it helps to understand the way training works overall. Over the couple months leading up to a race, as you gradually challenge yourself with increasing mileage, your body grows stronger, fitter, faster, and more efficient, Wells says. These so-called training adaptations all take time to kick in, and many actually happen in the downtime after a run, not during the run itself.

Resting in between workouts is important so that your body can recover and adapt to the stresses you just put on it—extra recovery time during the taper allows your body to process even more of the hard work you’ve put in, making even bigger changes, Wells says.

Specifically, as your muscle fibers heal themselves after being damaged during exercise, they get bigger, boosting your strength and power. Your stores of glycogen—the fuel that powers you through all those miles—have time to replenish as you refuel and expend less energy. Hard training dulls the signals your brain sends to your quads, glutes, and hamstrings, but rest refreshes and helps these neuromuscular connections get quicker over time, so you’re literally firing on more cylinders, running coach and exercise physiologist Greg McMillan, M.S., tells SELF.

Tapering also gives you a much-needed mental break, so you can toe the line feeling optimistic and refreshed.

Psychologically, you’re better off tapering, too. For one thing, you’ll feel lighter and more energetic if you’re well-rested and your legs feel fresh. Scientists have also reported what they call a reduced perception of effort—meaning, how hard it feels to run a given pace—in tapered athletes vs. non-tapered.

All that adds up to a pretty significant advantage that’ll let you show up on race day ready to give it your all. Wells uses the analogy of a spring: “If you push your foot down on a spring and all of a sudden you take your foot off the spring, the spring rebounds and flies up in the air. That sort of stored energy explodes out and you end up with these amazing performances.”

Tapering doesn’t require you to stop running altogether or stop doing tempo runs and interval workouts, if they’re part of your training.

A well-designed training plan likely already has a taper built in. The typical protocol involves reducing the total amount of your running—what coaches call the volume—by 20 to 40 percent two weeks out from your race, then another 20 to 40 percent the last week.

Many non-elite marathoners do best closer to the 20-percent mark each week, McMillan says. (Much of the research on tapering has been done on elite swimmers who train hours and hours per day—it makes sense for them to cut back more because they’re putting in more hard work in the first place, he points out.) So for instance, if you built up to a 40-mile week, you’d cut back to around 32 miles two weeks before and 25 the last week before your race.

What you don’t want to tinker with too much is your typical running schedule or pace. If you’re regularly running four days a week, don’t suddenly cut back to two or three, just make each run shorter. And if you regularly do some faster running, keep that in your routine too—just do less of it (say, four quarter-mile repeats instead of six or eight, or a 10-minute tempo run instead of a 30-minute one).
All this gives you the requisite rest while keeping you in your normal rhythm and routine, so you still feel sharp and competitive, McMillan says.

Making a few tweaks to your nutrition during this time can help, too.
Diet-wise, you’ll want to place even more focus than usual on healthy, nutrient-dense foods during this period to support your body’s adaptation process. “Overload on vegetables, and don’t be afraid of eating healthy, fresh fruit,” Wells says.

You might want to incorporate a few more carbs into your diet the two or three days immediately pre-race to further shore up your fuel stores. But don’t overdo it on foods like rice or pasta earlier in the taper, McMillan warns. Remember, you’re running fewer miles. Any excess that your body can’t use will get stored as fat, which can slow you down instead of helping you run faster.

For all its benefits, it’s 100-percent normal to feel a little crappy during the taper—even elite runners do.
Though the goal is to come through the taper restored, you’ll probably hit some low points along the way. In fact, a period of sluggishness and exhaustion usually strikes about four to six days into the taper and lingers for two to three days, Wells says.

Running coach and elite marathoner Neely Spence Gracey—she ran 2:34 in last year’s TCS New York City Marathon—confirms she usually feels terrible two weeks out from race day. “I am tired from the big week before,” she tells SELF—that’s typically her hardest week of training. “I am getting the conflicting pre-race anxiety of excitement and doubt: ‘I can’t wait to race’ and ‘I don’t know if I am ready.’”

Some runners also find they’re hypersensitive to new aches and pains during this time. That’s largely because you’re spending less time running and more time thinking, McMillan says. A minor irritation that might have gone unnoticed during your hardest training can now stoke fears of a potentially race-threatening injury.

For Gracey, riding out “taper madness” involves getting ample sleep, drinking lots of water, and continuing her stretching and strengthening exercises. Note that she’s already been doing these throughout her training; this isn’t the time to suddenly start a new yoga practice, Wells advises.

Anything that reduces the stress hormone cortisol—from sleeping more to meditating to reading a great book or binge-watching Modern Family—improves your chances of quickly feeling better and running well, he says.

In fact, McMillan prefers to keep the focus on what you can do to improve performance vs. what you’re skipping, so he uses the term “peaking” instead of “tapering.” “Maybe it’s just semantics,” he says. “Taper sometimes makes you just think, ‘I’m on vacation.’ You don’t want to take your mind out of the competition.”

Wells, on the other hand, keeps the focus on the cutback so athletes aren’t tempted to overdo anything: “We taper our training so that we can perform at our peak.”

But every athlete’s a little bit different, he says. He recommends keeping a training log in the days before a big race so you can keep track of exactly which mindset, percentage of mileage reduction, and stress-relieving methods prove most effective for you.

As always, there are a couple of exceptions to the general rules of tapering.

Tapering works best if you trained relatively consistently. If you got sick, injured, busy, or just plain didn’t do a lot of your runs along the way, you’re probably better off continuing to ramp up instead, McMillan says.
Runners who missed big blocks of training “aren’t going to peak with a taper,” he says. “Usually, they’re feeling out of sync and just not good. So they need to feel like a runner again.” Five to 10 runs usually gets them back in the groove, he notes.

Those who have a nagging injury or feel extra stressed out could cut back a little bit more, he says, though he thinks most runners err on the side of cutting back too much rather than too little. And if you’re heading into a big race and didn’t taper, don’t let it freak you out.

Follow Graceys’ example instead—she spends as much time as possible pre-race focusing on the highlights of her preparation, not the downsides.

“I review my training logs to remind myself of the miles of blood, sweat, and tears I have put into this goal,” she says. “I develop a mantra for positive thinking out on the course. I break down all the things I control, and then I forget about the rest. No need to waste energy.” Instead, she saves every ounce of it for crossing the finish line.