Tapering for Running Races | The Smart Method

“Generally, you can only do too much.”

Tapering is always hard. You need to freshen up, but you still have to do some hard workouts so you don’t get stale. Otherwise, the race will be too much of a shock to the system. At the same time, you can’t thrash yourself, or you’ll start the race cooked.

Tapering requires you to be super in tune with how you feel day-to-day to avoid overdoing it.

At the fundamental level, tapering is a progressive reduction in training load. Runners will reduce their intensity, duration, and sometimes frequency to increase their recovery time, leading into key events.

I believe there are four distinct durations for tapering;

Ultramarathon (5hrs+) = last big workout, four weeks

Marathon (2 – 4hrs) = last big workout, three weeks

Half marathon (1 – 2hrs) = last big workout, two weeks

<10km (< 1hr) = last big workout, one week

Example Table

These numbers are incredibly generalised, and you’ll need to move along the spectrum depending on your training state and experience. I.e. if you run a half marathon over 2hrs, or you can run a 50km < 5hrs.

“Generally, you can only do too much.”


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Special Mention to Ultra Runners

Four weeks for an ultramarathon taper is quite a long time, and I wouldn’t consider this your typical taper. During an ultramarathon taper, you need to recover from your last big workout, which could be 7hrs or more, while maintaining a relatively high volume to support the muscular conditioning required to run for hours on end. Typically, you don’t need to worry about sharpening your speed, or anaerobic threshold like you do for a fast road race, so you can’t just drop from five days per week to three days per week because you’ll lose muscular conditioning too quickly. I’d recommend keeping the frequency and intensity of your running the same but reducing the volume. For well-trained ultra runners, you’d still want to be running around 3 hrs easy or 2hrs steady-tempo two weeks out from the race.

Road Races | 5km – Marathon

For marathon runners and below (shorter), it’s all about getting two-three weeks out and shutting it down (within reason).

Assuming you’ve made it through 80% of your training with an odd missed workout here and there. At two-three weeks until the race, you have zero chance to train yourself fitter. You can only recover yourself fitter and train yourself fresher.

What do I mean by “recover yourself fitter and train yourself fresher”?

Building aerobic or anaerobic fitness requires a consistent, repetitive stimulus to induce an adaptation response. This training stress puts the muscle system into a suboptimal condition from which it must recover. During training, we aim to consistently apply stress to the muscle system while only allowing for just enough recovery to allow us to apply more stress. We do this with the long-term plan that we will have a recovery week or taper during which we will enable our muscle system to recover fully. Once fully recovered, our muscle system now has a higher capacity than before (i.e., fitter). Without a period of prolonged recovery (tapering), we remain in a suboptimal state. More training during our taper won’t make us fitter in the short term. It’ll only increase the likelihood of our muscle system being in a suboptimal state on race day. Therefore, our training within our taper should be designed to help freshen our muscle system for race day. Regular taper training would be 50-75% of your average weekly load and include a Fartlek/HIIT workout alongside a short race effort at goal race pace/power or slightly above. You should not feel like you’re pushing beyond 7 out of 10.

I Feel, Meh 😕

It’s ok to feel sluggish during your taper, and it is often a common complaint of runners expecting to feel exponentially fitter on day one of a two-week taper. However, due to the prior weeks and months of training, a fair amount of fatigue must be overcome before we can feel amazing. At times, that fantastic feeling will never arrive, but it doesn’t mean we’re not recovering. Listen to your body, rest more if needed, and believe you’ll be ready to execute when the race starts.

Careful Calories

It’s important to note that when you’re in the middle of your last big training block, you’ll have high energy expenditure, which has probably allowed you to be pretty loose with your diet. During your taper, you will reduce your training load by up to 50% of what you were doing previously. It’s important to monitor your diet and ensure that you’re fueling relative to your training. Typically, it’s as simple as putting away the snacks and junk food for a few weeks.

You’re not on holiday yet

Personally, when I first started travelling to events, I went into full holiday mode from the moment I left home. Takeaways, junk food, shopping, I was off the clock. However, I quickly realised that I would feel worse than I did before I left.

I’ve since noticed the same thing in other athletes, who can spend a few hours walking around the expo or watching other events the day before their race.

Two – Three days before your race, you need to shut it down and act like a pro, or more relatable, act like you have a broken leg. Avoid walking around unless it has a purpose. Sit where you can, and plan your meals.

Less stress. More rest.

And that’s pretty much it for tapering. When you look at the Monday through Sunday, it’s going to be a bit more intricate based on your past experiences and training style, but for the most part, just take what you’ve been doing and reduce the distance or duration.



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