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Tapering 101…. The hard facts from a mediocre marathoner

As I head into the final few days before marathon #7, I thought it might be appropriate to shed some light on the most horrible and difficult part of endurance training. The taper. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this term, tapering involves a decrease in exercise volume in the days leading up to a big event. Don’t get me wrong, from a scientific standpoint, research shows that tapering is an effective way to improve performance (somewhere between 2-8%), but taper tantrums are a real live thing.

Runners not only develop a physical addiction to exercise, we can also develop a psychological dependence. Take the exercise away, along with some nerves about a race you’ve trained many months for, and you’ve got yourself a nervous wreck! Now instead of having to worry about when you’re going to fit your long run in with your work schedule, social and family agendas, you have plenty of time to second guess your training, and wonder if you’ve really done enough to prepare yourself for the big day! SOOOOOO instead of doing that, I’ve decided to keep myself busy by writing this blog that will highlight all the great things about tapering- most importantly, a significant improvement in performance. So hold on runners, although the taper can leave you feeling out of control, and somehow like you’re getting out of shape, the truth of the matter is, it will pay off in a big way when you feel fresh as a daisy when toeing the line for your next big race! Let’s take a look at some of the methodology associated with tapering.

  1. Duration of the taper: How long do you need to decrease your training? Turns out it can be a few days up to 22 days, depending on the event. Longer, more tolling events may require a longer taper (2-3 weeks for an Ironman, or marathon), while shorter races (10k or shorter triathlon) may only require 7-10 days. Also consider the importance of the event, and how long your training cycle has been. Bosquet et al., (2007) reported that 2 weeks seems to be the optimal duration of a taper for swimmers, cyclist and runners. More specifically, 8-14 days for cycling and running. Less research out there on swimmers, but the trend tends to be towards a longer taper for our water loving friends (14-20 days).

  2. Volume of the taper: How much should you cut back? Exercise volume should decrease steadily, and may be anywhere from 10%- 60%. This means if you normally run 100 miles per week, with a taper you may decrease to between 90-40 miles. That just sounds ridiculous. I hope you don’t run 100 miles per week. Bosquet et al., (2007) reported that 41-61% decreased volume is optimal, but the intensity at which you complete this should remain the same. This part is tricky. No need to slow down, but on the contrary, just because you are feeling fresh and well rested doesn’t mean you should be sprinting around all over the place. Exercise should naturally feel easier while on the taper.

  3. Training frequency: should I work out less often? In short; yes and no. Differing studies have shown both options to be effective. Whatever you need to do to decrease your overall exercise volume should be fine. I do a little of both. I normally run 6 days per week, but in the final week of my taper, I usually only do 4 days.

Why does it work?

  • Tapering decreases the energy cost of exercise. While all sorts of endurance athletes use the taper system, this seems to be true of runners and swimmers both. Not seen in our cyclist friends. This is related to biomechanical efficiency as well as improved neural integration with tapering.

  • Tapering causes an increase in aerobic endurance. The mechanism associated with this is not completely understood, but is probably likely to an increased storage of fuel, complete muscle recovery, appropriate hydration, and improved efficiency of heat dissipation.

In conjunction with our decrease in training volume, we should also address the glorious process of carbohydrate loading. Carbohydrate loading involves an increase in carbohydrate intake in the few days leading up to competition. The theory is that this will increase fuel storage in the liver and muscles, and hence allow us to improve performance. Carbohydrate loading is an effective strategy, and can result in performance improvements (2-3%) for events lasting 90 minutes or more. SO, if you are training for an event that will take you less than 90 minutes, carbohydrate loading will NOT help you. It probably won’t hurt, but research just hasn’t shown that it will improve your performance. Carbohydrate intake should be increased in the 3-4 days leading up to competition. We are talking like 7-12 grams/ kg body weight. Basically, if you weigh 150 pounds, you should be eating 1900- 3200 calories of carbohydrates per day. So order that large serving of spaghetti, and grab that extra breadstick, because that is a lot of food!!!

Want to read more about the taper? Check out this article.

Want to see what researchers are saying about carbohydrate loading?

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