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Hey Coach: Do I really need to taper?

This is one of the rare times that the answer isn’t “it depends” – the answer is YES! In a sport where more training generally means more fitness, it can be hard to get our heads around the taper period, when more is not better.

The taper is the period after you complete your longest training sessions and before your race. It may be one week to three weeks, depending on the length of your race and your training volume. This is the period when your training volume will be reduced rather dramatically, but you maintain frequency and some intensity. This reduction in load prepares your body for an optimal performance because it allows your muscles and connective tissues to repair and strengthen, and your glycogen stores, metabolic enzymes, hormone levels, and immune system (which all get depleted during heavy training) to return to optimal levels. Some studies show that a proper taper can lead to a 3% improvement in performance. So it’s in your best interest to get it right!

It’s important to remember that adaptations to training take six weeks or longer. So by the time you are tapering for your big race, it is too late to gain any benefits from additional training – but it’s not too late to sabotage your performance. This means that it’s NOT a good idea to add that long run that you missed into your taper. It’s too late to gain any benefits, and you only risk hurting your race readiness.

So what can you do during your taper? Here are some things to focus on:

  1. SLEEP! Make this your top priority.

  2. HYDRATION: Stay hydrated every day.

  3. NUTRITION: Keep yourself fueled with good healthy food. Stick to your normal eating/snacking schedule and familiar foods. It’s not a great idea to try to drop a few pounds before your race. It’s also not a great idea to eat a bunch of junk food either.

  4. STRESS: I realize this is easier said than done, but try to keep your stress levels to a minimum. Avoid starting a stressful or strenuous project.

  5. REST: Since your training is lighter in the weeks leading up to your race, you may be tempted to tackle something you’ve been putting off. BUT… this is not the time to mulch your entire yard or rearrange heavy boxes in your garage. It’s also not the time to accept a skateboarding challenge from your kid. Movement is good, but stay away from overly strenuous activities or things that risk injury.

You’ve worked hard and put in the training time. This is the home stretch – by nailing a solid taper strategy, you’ll be able to show up on the start line ready to give your best possible performance. Happy racing!


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