Getting ready for any race of any distance takes a whole series of things. It takes a certain amount of training, it takes mental preparation and strategizing, it takes a great race day outfit and a good post-race celebration plan. Most importantly of all though it takes a subtle but effective taper so you feel fresh, fit and ready to run! There’s no doubt that tapering effectively can work, a review by The International Journal of Sports Medicine found, from the data of 50 studies, that tapering can improve performance by an average of 3%. That’s a 36 second PR for a 20 min 5k runner!
While there are plenty of competing theories on how best to taper, when to taper, and what races even require a taper, there are a few simple changes you can make to your weekly regimen so you feel at your best when you toe the line.
The key to all tapers! Lowering your weekly mileage. This is extremely hard for some people, there’s a nagging fear that you’ll lose fitness in a few weeks of lower mileage, that you just won’t be as sharp or fast…FALSE! The aerobic fitness built over the course of a traditional training block would take at least a week of being completely stationary to disappear. A decrease in weekly mileage for 2-3 weeks leading up to a race can be exactly what the body needs to feel even fresher and sharper once the race begins.
(Plus, if you keep reading #2 - #4 you’ll find additional ways to keep that fitness alive and well)
Based on your race distance you’ll adjust for different periods and to different amounts. For any distance under a full marathon a 2 week taper should be sufficient, cut 20% off your weekly mileage 2 weeks out and 50% in the week preceding the race. Running a full marathon? Start 3 weeks out for your taper (after that last LONG run or tune-up race). Start at a 20% mileage decrease, move on to 40% in week 2 and then cut 60% off during your final pre-race week.
Don’t cut all the mileage out of just one or two runs. The goal is to keep the intensity and number of runs per week while decreasing total volume. Start by shortening your high-intensity workouts and then cut down your long runs and base runs by just enough to cover the rest of the taper.
Rest & Relaxation
While it may not be possible to completely adapt your sleep schedule for your entire training cycle, try to for 2-3 weeks before your goal race. Being conscious of the recommended 8-10 hours of sleep per night leading up to race day will not only make your training sessions feel better, it’ll also improve your durability and fatigue resistance come race time. Maybe even take it a step further and book yourself a relaxation day? Be careful of timing since you don’t want to be sitting in a sauna sweating the night before racing a 10k, and you may want to avoid a deep tissue massage any closer to a race than 3-5 days out but otherwise, whatever relaxes you, go for it!
Practicing healthy eating habits is something that runners should be doing all the time but we live in a fast-paced, busy world where eating the proper nutritional balance and enough good calories sometimes is simply not a priority. Even if it is just the final week before a race, make sure that your meals are pre-planned to maximize the nutrient balance you need to be ready to go on race day. Complex carbohydrates are going to be key for the week leading up to the race, while the “eat an entire box of pasta the night before” strategy won’t actually help, increasing your daily amount of whole grains, fruits, and even potatoes for 7-10 days will! Also, practice that pre-race meal a few times right before a training session, don’t risk a brand new meal as you head out the door to the start line.
Strides & Speed
I generally explain the feeling of having little to no pickup during a run or workout as being stale and it tends to happen unavoidably a bit after a long, mileage-focused training block. Oftentimes a mileage taper can solve that problem within itself however it’s always good to let the legs loose a little bit for high-intensity, low-volume work leading into a race. Something as simple as 6-10 200 meter dashes for a workout or even just 4-6 30 second accelerated strides after a few base runs will make all the difference when you’re looking to increase your cadence and find that extra gear at the end of a race.