By Ben Connelly
At last, we come to the final phase of training: tapering. For tired runners, ready for a rest after many weeks of high mileage and hard workouts, tapering comes as a welcome relief. For other runners, tapering feels paradoxically wrong; the runs feel too short to count and the newfound ease seems strangely uncomfortable.
I have been in both camps. At times, worn out from relentless training, I welcomed tapering and a chance to rest. But when training went really well – when I felt good and crushed long runs and workouts – even a 5-mile dip in weekly mileage was a letdown. Sometimes – I suspect many runners experience this – tapering is a bit of both.
Every phase of training poses its own physical and psychological challenges. Weeks of struggling through fatigue and soreness take a mental toll. But so does holding yourself back when you feel good and want to run further and faster. For many driven, type-A runners, tapering poses a unique challenge.
Navigating a Fine Line:
If you do not taper enough, you will enter your race sore, fatigued, and potentially nursing injuries. If you taper too much, you will show up on race day feeling sluggish and unready.
The goal of tapering is to show up rested and ready. You want to balance resting enough to recover from hard training, with maintaining peak readiness and fitness gains. If you drop your mileage by 50% and stop performing any workouts, you will lose fitness. On the other hand, if you keep running 20-mile runs, you will arrive on race day with excess muscle damage in your legs.
A good rule of thumb is to start dropping your mileage about 5 weeks from your race, about 10% every two weeks. You would have a couple weeks at about 90% of peak mileage, a couple at 80%, and your final week would be 70-75% (including the race). At a later date, I plan to post about what to do in that final week.
As you drop your mileage, your workouts should shorten commensurately. They should also get easier. Shorter tempos, medium hill efforts, medium-length M-pace segments, and mixed M-pace and tempo-pace workouts.
Outside of Running:
Much of your work during the tapering phase should come outside of running. Focus more than ever on nutrition and sleep (8-10 hours a night). Now that your runs take up less time, you have more time to devote to supplemental recovery work and mild strength training. Foam rolling, physical therapy (preventative or rehab for any minor injuries), pre-run mobility drills, post-run stretching, trigger point massage/self-myofascial release, etc.
This is also a good time to treat yourself to a sports massage. Tell your massage therapist that you have a race coming up.
Avoid strenuous activities in these last weeks (long hikes, martial arts competitions, etc.), but stay loose and active. Keep walking around and using light cross training to keep your legs fresh. Now is not the time to spend hours a day on the couch. Again, the goal is to balance rest with readiness. Too much extra activity could hurt recovery. So could too little.
Finally, stop worrying. Tapering is when runners often begin experiencing pre-race nerves. Try to relax and avoid rumination. Keep your mindset positive. Remember the work you put in during training. Soon, you will have a chance to prove it worked.