Monday, September 28, 2009

Running Tip #20 - Tapering

Tapering is the reduction in training before a competition. Tapering can produce significant gains in performance, and is part of most training plans. However, there are various approaches that can be taken based on the variables on intensity, volume and frequency.

The Experiment of One

The studies of tapering indicate a high level of individual variability [2]. This variation is as wide as 8.9% improvement to 2.3% reduction in measured performance. This may be variation from individual to individual, but it seems to me that it may also depend on the specifics of the overall training plan. Consider two marathon runners; one is building up their weekly long run as 14, 16, 18, 20, while the other has been doing 20 miles runs for several months. It seems reasonable that the two runners would require different tapers. The runner who has been quickly building up their long run distance is likely to have more muscle damage as the body will have had little time to adjust to the distance. What does this mean to you? It means you may have to experiment with differing tapers, or at least consider different approaches.

General Observations on Tapering

There is some debate over how much of the benefit of tapering is a short term boost due to the extra rest, and how much is a result of a better approach to training. It has been suggested that the ideal taper might also be an ideal training plan.

Tapering is a balance between recovery and detraining. Too much stress on the body will reduce race performance, but too little stress will result in detraining. Detraining can occur in the time period of many tapers, therefore it is critical that training stress is correctly applied.

Psychological effects of tapering

Tapering has some strange and unexpected effects. You would think that lowering your training would leave you feeling great, with boundless energy and enthusiasm. For most people, the opposite is true. We feel sluggish, lethargic and slow. New aches and pains suddenly appear and we can feel like a simple walk is hard work. This can lead to fear that our fitness has disappeared, or that we have a strange new illness. In reality, I suspect this is just the fact that our bodies are used to a higher level of training stress and the lower levels feel strange. It may also be higher levels of glycogen in the muscles which make our legs feel heavy. Whatever the explanation, for most of us tapering is not the nirvana we would like.

Short Race Tapers

For a short race (5K) it seems that drastically reducing training volume, while keeping intensity high can produce great gains. Based on [1], a 7 day taper that reduces mileage by 85% and has a decreasing number of hard intervals (7 the first day, 6 the next, etc) produces good results. However, this type of taper tends to cause muscle soreness, which makes it less than ideal for longer races.

General Tapering

The consensus of 27 studies for tapering is listed below [2]. These guidelines are not specific to a given distance and I found no studies looking at marathon distance or greater.

  • Do not decrease training intensity (intensity seems to be key).
  • Reduce mileage by 20-60.
  • Taper for 8-14 days. Some athletes will do well on other durations, but some will do worse than no taper.
  • Reduce mileage exponentiall.
  • Keep training frequency the same may be better than reducing frequency.

Fellrnr's Personal Approach to Marathon Taper

The following is my personal advice based on anecdotal and personal experience. This approach works well for a marathon where you are focusing significant resources into an optimal performance. Obviously, running the marathon distance (or greater) does not require a taper, but performance is optimized by doing one.

  • Taper for two weeks.
  • Cut out any easy paced/recovery/junk runs (if you are doing any).
  • Have the last long run at the beginning of the taper. No run past this point should have the purpose of improving endurance.
  • Avoid hard downhill running in the taper.
  • Do medium length runs at marathon pace (Running at marathon pace improves your sense of pace and become comfortable at this speed).
  • Do 'easy intervals' - for instance, mile repeats at tempo pace with full recovery. The idea is to be fast enough to keep prevent detraining, but easy enough to avoid any muscle soreness. You could do harder intervals if you are confident they will not cause soreness.

Fellrnr's Personal Ultra Tapering

Like many ultrarunners, I do far more races in a year than typical marathon runners. This race load means that a longer taper is impractical. Therefore, for a short ultra (up to 50 miles), I take the day before the race off completely and convert that week's hill training to a flat run. For longer races, I'll reduce my Monday and Wednesday runs to one hour rather than three, avoid hills and take Friday off. (I normally only run Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.)

Other thoughts on tapering

  • Don't be stupid. Correct tapering can help you recover from your hard training and do your best. It is not an alternative to hard training, and any attempt to compensate for poor preparation in the taper period will only make matters worse.
  • Avoid injury. Don't do hard intervals or start doing an alternative workout to 'make up' for the reduction in tapering. Be careful to avoid injury through 'accidental exercise', such as chasing the dog, lifting furniture, etc.
  • Stay off your feet as much as possible the week before the race. This can be tough if you are travelling for a race and want to sightsee.
  • Reduce caffeine intake if you are a regular user. This is true if you are intending to use caffeine in the race or not. Reduced caffeine will make you tired and cranky, but it's worth it. (I find reduced caffeine also makes me hungry - YMMV)
  • Limit stress as much as possible. The taper period tends to involve a lot of stress due to the change in training pattern and because of the looming race. Stress is catabolic (breaks down the body), and needs to be avoided as much as possible.
  • Ensure you get plenty of sleep, especially the week before the race. The night before the race is not critical, but the few nights before that are important.
  • Avoid infection by washing your hands and being careful around sick people.
  • Spend time visualizing the race. Visualize your preparation, race start, the mid miles, the late miles, how to use aid stations, how the finish will feel, etc.
  • Make lists of things you need to take with you or you need to do on the night before the race and on race day. This will make sure you are prepared and help deal with the stress. Use the same list for every race, building and changing it based on experience.
  • Reduce your calorie intake to balance the reduced training load. Tapering is not the time to gain weight.
  • For the bulk of the taper period, reduce carbohydrate intake and favor protein and fat. Protein and fat are critical for healing and repair. Protein should be taken several times a day; protein drinks and skimmed milk are good choices. Fats must be low in saturated fats and high in essential fatty acids. Fish oil, fatty fish, nuts, flax or flax oil are good choices.
  • For the last few days, favor carbohydrate and/or fat depending on what you learned from your long runs. (You did learn this, didn't you!) I find that fat is better for me than carbohydrate for ultras.
  • Store 'creative energy'. Any race should involve suffering, and that suffering requires fortitude. Spending time in visualization, meditation, prayer, yoga, or similar activities will help create the needed mental strength.
  • Use 'the stick' to massage muscles and verify that there are no sore spots or problems. A massage can also help. The massage should be more gentle as the taper progresses.
  • Be very careful with stretching. Stretching may help, but it can also cause damage.
  • If you feel crappy in the taper period, you're not alone. Most runners hate the taper period, often feeling guilty, lethargic, stiff and generally out of sorts. This is normal; just accept that you'll be okay on the day.

[1]The effects of taper on performance in distance runners

[2]Effects of Tapering on Performance: A Meta-Analysis