Taper Town: Why It's Worth the Visit
Tapering is a key ingredient in any training plan no matter the distance. As we enter this phase of a training cycle you may begin to feel like you are losing fitness, you may have some aches and pains, and you are probably going to want to do more because it feels weird to cut back. The purpose of the taper though is to allow the body to recover and reduce fatigue from the intensity of the training cycle.
The taper can vary in duration depending on the training cycle duration, the coach, the goal race distance and how you are actually feeling at this point in the cycle. Most commonly you will see a 1-2 week taper before the goal race; if you are working with a running coach they will help you determine how long you need for your taper. During this time there are a few things that are happening that are important before you show up to the starting line.
A Full Recharge Before Race Day
Since you are reducing the volume and load you are putting on the body, you will have more time to repair and recover from any minor aches or irritations that you might have picked up along the way. When training at a higher intensity for periods of time the body will develop muscle tissue damage and micro-tears, this is normal and sometimes it feels sore. This is your time to focus on the little things like foam rolling, stretching and mobility to work on those little kinks you may have been trying to avoid during the training cycle.
Your body will begin to repair damaged tissue and actually replenish energy stores so you will feel more energized and fresh on race day. Training at higher intensity for periods of time the body begins to deplete muscle glycogen or energy stores. This is why it's very important to properly fuel on the run but also throughout the training cycle to reduce likelihood of burnout or injury. During your taper you should not reduce nutrient intake just because you are not training as hard. This is your time to load up and create large energy stores for race day (hence carb loading).
Throughout your training cycle the body will build stress, whether it be mental or physical it is still stress. Besides physical and mental changes you can also have hormonal imbalances. One example of this would be an increase in cortisol levels in the body, which can create irritability, fatigue and depression among other things but it is a classic sign of overtraining. During the taper you are able to normalize hormonal balance by reducing load throughout the body.
How to Survive the Taper
In my opinion one of the hardest parts of a taper is the psychological aspect. You just had X number of weeks all targeting a specific goal, ramping up mileage, adding in workouts and amping yourself up. Then all of a sudden it all gets taken away but you haven't had the goal race yet. You have more time on your hands to think about things and a lot of times it's hard not to over analyze these situations. “Did I train enough? Did I do enough mileage? Can I actually run at that pace? Do I have a stress fracture? Am I still fit even though I stopped running as much?” These are very common questions you begin to ask yourself and it's totally normal.
The biggest thing is to try your best to stay motivated. The goal of the taper is to actually reduce the mental and physical burnout, giving you a mental break from the intensity. Focus on the little things you can control and don't over think the process. Breath-work, meditation, journaling, building your race day playlist: these are all ways to set intentions for peace around this event. But a manicure or a date night with a close friend may be just as powerful - you have to make sure you do what's best for you here.
There is no one size fits all for the proper taper; it usually depends on the sport, the duration of the race, fitness levels and how the athlete has responded to training. When you taper properly it has the potential to significantly improve the outcome of your goal race by minimizing the negative effects that training has on the body. And though it seems logical and simple on paper, there is a reason "taper tantrums" are talked about. You'll need to be able to trust your training through mood swings, soreness in new places, and easy runs feeling a lot harder.
The biggest take away from this is listening to your body, focus on you, focus on sleep, focus on resting and taking care of you. If you have any questions about tapering or training, reach out to us and ask a coach.