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How to Taper Before Your Event
By Courtenay Schurman, MS, CSCS
“Tapering” is one of those terms that you hear over and over, but do you really fully understand what it means or how to properly implement one in your training program?
Tapering differs from event to event. In simplest terms, what you are trying to do when you taper is recover from all of your hard training, so that you are well rested and ready to put the training to the test. When you have trained and “peaked” properly, you should experience increased power, reduced lactic acid buildup and fatigue, increased blood volume, enhanced work capacity, increased fuel storage, and renewed interest in participating in your event (if at any point you were verging on overtraining). You should feel like you have plenty of “pop” or “spring” in your muscles, and you should also feel a bit antsy, as though you cannot wait to get going again. The most common mistake people make leading up to their event is to think that “more is better” and to train hard right up until the day before the day of the race or climb. As difficult as it is to remember, fitness actually improves with rest, and you want to be well rested to perform optimally.
How long you taper will depend on how fit you are going into it, and what you are peaking for. If you are about to embark on a 3-week climb, your taper will be longer than a taper for a 5K foot race. If you have reached a high level of fitness, you probably will need a longer taper than someone in poorer condition who may want to continue training at reduced intensity to within a few days of the event. If you are in the middle of a climbing or racing season with several “big climbs” or competitions planned, you may even choose to embark on a modified program of maintenance during the week (or month, or season, as the case may be), with mini-peaks and mini-tapers of 2-4 days before each climb, race or event.
If you consider a multi-day climb or a multi-hour event like an ironman, ultra, or marathon as examples, a taper might start as far as 2 weeks prior to the start of your event, with a final strength training workout no closer than ten days before your departure, and a final high-intensity aerobic workout no closer than 4-5 days before your event. This enables you to completely replenish the muscle glycogen following exhausting training leading up to your event and provides a mental and physical break before you need your full capacities to excel at your climb or race.
Cardiovascular workouts should also gradually decrease in length over a week, although it may be best to try to maintain the frequency of your aerobic workouts. Run distances, for example, may diminish to a 2-3 mile jog two days before a marathon, or a 30 min. jog or elliptical workout two days prior to a climb of Mt. Rainier. You might choose to include a moderate hike with half the pack weight you intend to use, with a fraction of the distance or elevation you normally accomplish, in order to “stretch out and maintain the feel for the trail.” If you are training for a triathlon, you might consider doing a 3/4-distance simulated triathlon a full two weeks before the race to mentally prepare yourself and visualize how you will compete, but then train each leg separately for the remainder of the two weeks before the race. Remember to include 1) proper hydration for 3-5 days prior to your race or climb, and 2) adequate loading of fuel -- anything taking over two hours in duration will rely on a diet consisting roughly of 65% carbohydrates / 20% fat / 15% protein.
At any point if you feel you are putting in more effort with diminishing returns, you may want to take some time off, but a well-thought-out training program will have you taking that “rest” as a scheduled taper right before your big event. Happy training!