Is Pre-Race Tapering The Key to Better Performance?

I’ve preached before about the importance of recovery after significant training efforts or a race. Putting your feet up for a few days, or even weeks, after an ‘A’ race is key to an athlete’s longevity. But, let’s face it, it’s easy to rest and recover after a big block of training and a well-executed race. You rightly feel justified reveling in the accomplishment. Plus, with the race over, you don’t have to worry about the race day consequences of eating cake for breakfast or skipping a workout.

The taper is truly a different beast. It’s harder to be as relaxed before the big day, so the taper, which involves reducing volume and recovery prior to a big race, can feel awkward and unnatural.

The taper concept is simple. Following a period of high volume training, you ease off the mileage in the weeks leading up to your goal. If done right and with a good attitude, the taper is an unmatched tool. According to two-time Olympic marathoner for the U.S., Pete Pfitzinger in his book Advanced Marathoning, tapering repairs muscle damage, allows glycogen stores to replenish, can increase red blood cells counts and VO2 max and can increase race performance by up to three percent.

But the reduction in training volume often results in pent-up energy that would otherwise be spent during exercise. That pent up energy can distress an athlete enough to sabotage a race or event. While every athlete has different taper needs and preferences, there are ways to mess it up. Here are a few tips to nail your taper and feel fresh on race day.

Channel The Extra Energy or Anxiety The Right Way

Three days out before the Canyons 100k, my biggest race of the season thus far, I woke up, saw the sun was shining and took my dog for a leisurely two-mile walk. I got home, made breakfast, went for my planned seven-mile run and had a big lunch. After lunch, I found myself twiddling my thumbs on a beautiful day, unable to concentrate on work. I had so much energy! Against my better judgment, I set out for another two-mile dog walk, covering a total of almost twelve miles that day, not including the mile walk to dinner and back.

Obviously, that’s overkill. I channeled my pre-race anxiety into more exercise, wasting precious time and energy instead of focusing on productive behaviors or activities. Even though I was having trouble concentrating, I could have still kept myself busy by packing, going over race day nutrition, going over splits or even some light stretching.

Don’t do Too Little

The general rule for racing and training is “when in doubt, rest.” Still, there is such thing as too much rest while tapering off mileage. When you reduce volume, you need to retain a degree of intensity in pre-race workouts for a successful taper. Athletes often mistakenly reduce both volume and intensity. While doing too little is always better than overtraining, aim to reduce training volume and the time you spend running while keeping the actual intensity up.

You’ll still run just as hard during periods of intensity as you would in normal training, but for less time. Remember, periods of intensity during the taper are not meant to contribute to fitness, but to keep you sharp before race day.

Eat Eat Eat

All runners know they should load up on carbohydrates and build their glycogen stores as race day approaches. That carb load coincides with a significant reduction in training volume and intensity and the increased calorie intake is bound to pack on an extra pound or two.

It’s a conundrum, especially if you’ve been trying to lose weight the entire training cycle in hopes of feeling light and nimble during the race. It can be hard to get the glycogen you need without feeling like the marshmallow man. Often, the desire to avoid weight gain wins the battle and glycogen stores don’t get maxed out.

But a few pounds of weight gain is healthy and a full gas tank is more important than shaving off a couple of extra pounds. In order to eat enough to heal muscle fibers and store needed glycogen, but not put on more than the normal few pounds of weight gain during a taper, listen to your body.

Eat when you are hungry; don’t eat just because you have a habit of eating at that time. During your training, you may have unconsciously grabbed a snack an hour before your upcoming run. While tapering, that ten-mile run may only be five miles, and if your body isn’t telling to eat that snack is not necessary. On the other hand, if you find yourself hungrier than you expected during tapering, don’t ignore the hunger pains. Go ahead and eat a healthy meal or snack because your body is trying to recover and repair.