This weekend I had my first race of the year, which means that last week I had my first taper of the year!
Every runner has a different approach to tapering; some love the much needed break, others feel restless and bored, and some fear losing fitness in that time. It can be a surprisingly stressful time as nerves build ahead of a big event, so how best to tackle your taper? Well, unfortunately, like most things in running it is an individual process. If you haven't yet fine-tuned your tapering process (has anyone actually managed this?) there are some tips below to help you get started.
When should I taper?
Knowing when to taper isn't as simple as 'before a race'. Some people race every weekend, other people race only once or twice a year. If you're racing frequently it isn't possible to taper for every single one - you can't be at peak performance week in, week out. Sometimes the best thing to do for your fitness is enjoy the experience of racing without letting it disrupt your training. The need to taper depends on how hard your training has been, how important the race is to you, and what you have coming up later in the season.
If you have been training intensely and feel burnt out, however, it is wise to taper before your race. My most recent race I hadn't intended to taper for properly as it was only the first of many races this summer for me. As such, I weighed up the benefits of tapering for this event vs. the fitness gains I would get from training though it. I decided that the disruption to my training wasn't worth it.
The weeks before the race, however, saw a significant increase in mileage and the stress of moving house. The weekend before the race I realised how tired I was feeling. I swapped my long run plans for short runs and easy scrambles. In the week before the race I came down with a slight cold - the type I would normally train through - and rested completely a for a few days to speed recovery. The 'accidental taper' is a valid option!
How long should I taper for?
Again, the answer to this depends on a lot of variables: how long is the race? How hard have I trained? How does my body react to reductions in load?
Finding the answer requires experimentation and a bit of luck. Some people taper for three weeks, gradually reducing their mileage and sessions as the race approaches. Others train normally until just a few days before hand, then drop load either dramatically or marginally.
Personally, I have a taper period of between five and ten days, depending upon the importance and length of the race. The more important and the more distance, the longer the taper!
How should I taper?
All very well, but what exactly does tapering involve anyway?
Tapering looks different for different people. It could involve maintaining usual mileage without intensity. It could see a drop in mileage of anything from 20 to 100%. Sometimes life gets in your way and prevents tapering - a friend was recently unable to taper entirely for her first 50k because she was on an outdoor leader course in the days running up to it.
The important thing to remember is that tapering doesn't just involve adapting your running, ideally it affects all aspects of life. Reducing stress at work, ensuring your travel plans are as easy as possible, and factoring in extra time to sleep and relax in the run up are all valid tapering steps.
Tapering also doesn't mean that you can't do anything at all! It can be physically and mentally refreshing to use the time to introduce some easy cross training. Cafe rides, easy scrambling, walks and picnics can help stave off the inactivity jitters whilst helping you to unwind!
My main piece of tapering advice? Above all, experiment!