Top run coaches spell out how to pull back your training in the final weeks leading up to race day.
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When you're in the thick of them, grueling, multi-month training plans can seem endless—like there's no end in sight. But all of the good ones do offer relief. It comes in the form of a taper, a time to cut back your mileage, slow down your legs, and take a (much-deserved) pre-race break.
It may sound counterintuitive, but tapers have their place in every effective training plan, whether you're gearing up for your first 5K or about to check the latest marathon off your list. (Related: 6 Things a Run Coach Can Teach You About Marathon Training)
Here, why they're important and how to make sure you're backing off the right way so that you arrive at the starting line rested and ready.
What is tapering for a race?
If you're new to running (or even if you're not) it's time to iron out a solid definition of what tapering is in the first place.
Simply put: "A taper is a gradual reduction in load so that the body can recover from the accumulated fatigue produced by hard training," explains Janet Hamilton, C.S.C.S., founder of Atlanta-based Running Strong, a company dedicated to both coaching and rehabbing runners.
However, tapering isn't lounging on the couch instead of doing your long run. After all, anyone who's run a marathon knows that one of your taper weeks might very well include a 16-mile run—something that only feels easier because it follows the longest run of your training.
Why do runners need to taper?
As you build your mileage, you're also building up serious levels of fatigue, says Hamilton. "If you toe the line with this high level of fatigue, you probably won't be able to perform at your best," she notes. (Related: Why All Runners Should Practice Yoga and Barre)
That's where a little R&R comes in. "The taper allows the body to rest, repair, and recover from the intense peak training period where the muscles, ligaments, and joints have been taxed during rigorous training," says Michael McGrane, the running club coach for the Boston Athletic Association. "For race time improvement, rest is the key element during the final weeks of a training period to hit a peak performance."
The benefits of the taper aren't all physical either. When you're working your body to the max, your mind gets tired, too. The taper offers a much-needed break—perhaps time to spend time with family, friends, or do other activities you might have had to pass over during your peak mileage weeks, says McGrane.
What does a good taper look like?
Every runner is different. So to make sure that a taper works for you, it's best to work with a run coach who can individualize a plan based on your goals, pace, and overall training strategy.
But generally speaking, a marathon taper usually takes place during the three weeks leading up to race day. More advanced runners often stick with a two-week taper, notes McGrane. (Check out Hamilton's sample taper plans for both a marathon and half marathon below.)
During this time, you pull back mileage each week, anywhere from 10 to 25 percent. Often, runners cut their long runs. For example, coming off of a 20- to 23-miler, your next two weeks of long runs might be 16 to 18 miles and then 10 to 12 miles, says McGrane.
Often, coaches also suggest taking these runs at slower paces during the taper in order to keep energy levels high. (Hamilton suggests ditching strength training the week of a race for the same reason.)
"Lowering the distance of the recovery runs by one to two miles also gives the body more rest and recovery," adds McGrane. But if you cut the distance of your speed workouts or tempo runs, try to keep the intensity up. "This can help you maintain a sharpness for both a mental edge to feel good about the training and to keep your muscles firing," McGrane notes.
As for shorter races? "The longer the race, the more important the taper becomes. But even for short races, a taper will benefit most athletes," Hamilton says. For 10Ks and 5Ks, you may only need a week or a few days to shake the fatigue linked with training, she notes.
Don't be anxious about tapering your race training.
A slowdown sounds like it would be music to the ears of anyone logging double-digit mileage every week, week after week, but it doesn't always come so naturally." Too many athletes are afraid that if they step back on the miles, they'll lose their fitness overnight," she notes. But in fact, stepping back actually helps you gain back energy and doesn't negatively impact fitness, she says.
Some runners, though, feel the urge to make up missed training workouts or long runs during the taper. "While the peak training is difficult to achieve, the taper can be the most challenging to get right for optimum performance on race day," McGrane notes.
If you're feeling anxious about not working out as much, try to trust in your training and tell yourself what Hamilton reminds her clients: "The training you do in the last days leading up to the race will not 'make' your performance on race day—but it can 'break' it."
Hamilton's Sample Half-Marathon Taper Plan
For a novice half marathoner logging 30 to 35 miles a week. (HMP = half marathon pace.)
Hamilton's Sample Marathon Taper Plan
For a novice marathoner logging 40 to 50 miles a week. (MP = marathon pace.)