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Tapering improves running performance

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Nine days before my big race. I’m tapering. Why? Because tapering improves running performance. But what is tapering and how should you do it?

Roughly said: tapering is taking it easy in the last weeks before you run a big race, especially in the amount of kilometers you run.

Fresh pair of legs

In the last couple of months before a big race, you usually run lots and lots of kilometers, and you do some heavy interval work on the side. You need those kilometers to be ready for your race, and you need all that speed work. Yet you also need a fresh pair of legs to run the best race of your life. A good taper will provide you with that fresh pair of legs.

Training is damaging your body. Just a bit, but still. As a result your body gets stronger, so you can run longer and faster. Training is not only damaging your body, it’s also making your body tired. No worries, that’s just a short term effect. The long term effect is that you get fitter.

Rest is recovery

To be in perfect shape for your race, you need to rest, as rest is recovery. The trick is to find the right amount of rest. If your taper is too short, you will still have tired legs on race day. If you taper is too long, you will have lost some of your fitness, as our muscles become weaker and our stamina less when we don’t move enough.

So what is the perfect amount of rest, and what is rest? Let’s start by answering the first question. The best, most honest, and most useless answer is; it depends from person to person. We are all different. We all run a different amount of kilometers, have different work, have a different age, and recover faster or slower than other people. The more races you run, the more tapers you do, the better you know what your body needs.

'To be in perfect shape for your race, you need to rest, as rest is recovery. The trick is to find the right amount of rest'

John Kraijenbrink

How long should a taper be?

If this is your first taper, I understand you’re looking for a more precise answer. Luckily scientists research everything. So the answer you’re after is 3 weeks, for marathon runners. 3 weeks of tapering will give you superior benefits. If you run a shorter distance, a shorter taper – 1 or 2 weeks – will do the trick.

These 3 weeks tapering for a marathon runner are based on research professor Barry Smyth and assistant professor Aonghus Lawlor of the University College Dublin have done under 158.000 recreational marathon runners. They looked at different lengths and different forms of taper and concluded that a strict taper with a progressive decrease in kilometers worked best. If you like, you can read their findings in Frontiers in Sports and Active Living.

How much should you run?

In the 3 weeks you’re tapering, you’re still running. You are just reducing the amount of kilometers, preferably in a progressive way. So the first week you run 20% less, the second week 40% and the week before your race 60%. For example you’ve run your last week before your taper week a total of 100 kilometers. Your first week of tapering you run 80 kilometers, the second week 60 and the last week 40 kilometers. 

If you run the day before your race is up to you. Some runners like to do a shake-out run the day before, or even on race day. Others prefer to rest. If you get nervous easily, and running helps you to control your nervousness, go for a little jog, but make sure it fits within your limited amount of kilometers.

How fast should you run?

Tapering is part of your race preparation. All the hard work is done, the moment you start your taper. Having said that, it’s wise to reduce the amount of kilometers, but to keep your intensity, which means you can still do your interval work. Just don’t overdo it. Choose for intervals in race pace.

The biggest mistake made with tapering, is doing too much. We’re runners, we want to run. Yet, taper weeks are resting weeks. The stricter you are with tapering, the better your performance on race day.

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