Virtual Marathon – an opportunity to explore what taper strategy works best for you.

Normally around this time of year, thousands of runners around Ireland will be starting their marathon taper as they make final preparations for the KBC Dublin Marathon. The race may be virtual this year, but it provides a great opportunity for runners to practice running the distance and getting their tapering right for when the real race returns. In this article, Head Coach at RCI René Borg explores what a taper actually consists of and which way of doing the taper, will be most effective for you.

Taper: diminish or reduce in thickness towards one end. A gradual narrowing. A gradual or incremental reduction

Introduction

It is no good arriving at your peak event super fit but dead tired. If you have ever ‘died off’ towards the end of a long race, you may automatically assume that this was down to insufficient training. It is just as likely that you did not ‘taper’ correctly. Executing the last weeks of training before an event badly leaves the body is not fully restocked in all the departments that count. And those ‘empty shelves’ make all the difference in the final part of the race.

The concept of ‘taper’ is simply an attempt to balance fatigue, fitness, and detraining. You want to remove as much fatigue as possible while losing as little fitness as possible. The research we have suggests that a good taper can generally lead to a 2-3% increase in performance with a range from 0.5% all the way up to 16% being reported! That is a significant increase – so messing up the taper is a bit like serving your steak with the wrong sauce: it can mess up the whole dish!

Any type of exercise you do leaves two effects: one short-term effect and one long-term effect. The short-term effect is fatigue. Fatigue manifests as a reduction in performance and so you are generally less able to perform in the days immediately following hard workouts when the effects of fatigue still linger. The long-term effects are positive (if training load is appropriate) and manifest as fitness: the ability to do more work or better work (running faster for longer etc.).

Once training stops or is reduced, fitness slowly begins reducing. Early on we do not feel the effects of this because we also become ‘fresher’ as we shed the ‘fatigue’ or ‘correct the accumulated wear and tear of training’ (Pfitzinger).

Classical tapering involves a rapid drop in training volume while intensity is increased. A second type of taper – sometimes labelled ‘sharpening’ (Magness) – maintains training pretty much as normal with a small reduction in the intensity, volume and density of training (reducing density means you increase the recovery days between harder workouts).

Some traditional tapers are gradual (i.e. drop volume by 15%, then by 10% in race week) and others are drastic (drop volume by 40% two weeks out, then by 60% etc.) and some are long (3 weeks) whereas others are short (1 week). So, which is right for you?

The problem

Unfortunately, one approach does not work for everyone. Some people do long tapers and feel stale and ‘rubbish’ by the time they hit the start line. Others do short and sharp tapers and feel fantastic. Some barely do any taper and still feel great. The key for a successful Taper is therefore to learn which strategy suits your individual needs.

This is the frustrating truth about many things related to running: what works for one person may not work for you, even if it appears to be backed by good science. This means ultimately you must experiment with the different approaches available until you find the right recipe for you. This will occasionally mean ‘learning the hard way’!

I looked through all my own best race performances and found an equally mixed bag. I had performed well in some races with little or no taper and badly in some races with an extensive taper (and vice-versa). All this tells us, of course, is that performance depends on a lot more than the taper in isolation. Looking back there is no way of telling whether ‘I would have run even better with a taper’ than without it. So what rules can we follow?

How to pick your taper

The taper you should pick depends on:

  1. The length and toughness of your training build-up
  2. The length of the race you are training for
  3. Your individual physical and psychological attributes

In relation to A and B, the rule is simply that you need a longer taper, the more demanding your training has been and the longer the race. It makes logical sense: the more tiring your training, the more time you need to shed the fatigue. The longer your race, the more you will need to be fresh. No one is surprised to hear you need more taper for a marathon than for a 5 km race.

The taper also needs to be specific to the event. Doing a lot of 3 km and 10 km race pace work during a taper is not a good idea for marathon as it shifts the emphasis of your metabolism towards sugar and anaerobic metabolism (the opposite of what we want). The type of intensity you do during the taper must mirror the intensities you will use in the race. A 5 km runner may do short and sharp 3k to 10k work.  A marathoner should focus on 10k to marathon paces only (leg-speed strides can always be done in moderation).

Where your decision becomes harder is when it comes to your physical and psychological characteristics. Firstly, it is known that drastic tapers benefit people with more Fast-Twitch fibres more than those who are predominantly ‘Slow-Twitch’. This means if you have good natural speed, bulky muscles but may be lacking a bit of natural endurance, then tapers benefit you more than if you are not naturally fast, thin and sinewy, have a hard time gaining muscle mass, and a general tendency towards endurance. The latter type tends to get stale if training is ramped down too aggressively and benefit more from the approach Magness’ calls ‘sharpening’ (see above).

Essentially, a sharp traditional taper leads to a slight shift towards Fast-Twitch muscle fibres (FT). This can be beneficial for runners with more FT training for shorter events but can be a problem in nearly all other cases. There ARE other physiological changes which benefit nearly everyone, but it would take too long to go through them here.

Finally, you must consider your own psychology. The more you derive confidence from your workouts, the less tapering you can likely afford to do without impacting your race performance. Essentially, tapering can be summarised as ‘do whatever YOU need to FEEL OPTIMAL on race day’.

For some this will be significant rest and just a few sharp workouts. For others it will mean business as usual with few dosed down versions of tried and trusted workouts that confirm to you that ‘you’re fine’.

Ten rules of thumb to help build your perfect taper

The best I can do for you is therefore to illustrate some different approaches and give some hints as to which would likely suit different types of runners. From there you can narrow the approach down rather than having to try 20 different strategies and only striking gold in the tenth attempt!

Some basic rules for the Taper I have picked up from several coaches and scientists over the years are presented below. They are ‘heuristics’ (rules of thumb) meaning not all will apply to you and you need to learn through trial and error which are best for you:

  1. A taper should last from 7 days to 21 days
  2. The longer your race, the longer the taper
  3. Lower your volume, but maintain your training intensity
  4. The longer and harder your training, the more aggressive the taper
  5. The more tired you are, the more taper you need
  6. Follow any hard work out during taper with 2 easy days – not just one! Do not be afraid to take days off
  7. All workouts – hard and easy – should decrease in volume
  8. Put extra focus into your recovery methods
  9. To use a taper, you should need a taper (meaning: no need for a taper if your training load was already light for you)
  10. Keep your Taper workouts SPECIFIC to your event

I hope this gives you a starting point. Good luck with your final weeks of training.

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