Timing the Taper

There are sacrifices required to make the start line of an endurance event such as a marathon but as a sport I love the simplicity of  it. There are no short cuts. That time as you cross the finish line is the end result of how hard you’ve worked. It couldn’t be more fair. But isn’t that comparable to most things in life? I really don’t consider the training a chore. If anything, although not started out for this reason, it has very much become my daily bout of mindfulness – me time! But it can also be useful for runners to get together for group runs, particularly those longer ones. It is good to be in a positive, supportive environment able to compare training plans. Rejoice in victory. Console when disappointed. The boss in work might not get it or appreciate what you’ve been working so hard towards. Neither might “the boss” at home, or care why you’ve got this nervous anticipation in the lead up to race day. But runners get it. We get why in the week or two before an event how you find yourself under stress, sore and doubting yourself. Five days out to London Marathon 2019 and it’s finally tapering time.

four men running on
Photo by RUN 4 FFWPU on Pexels.com

Tapering before any sporting event is as individual as the running shoes you wear, or the nutritional strategy you choose on race day. It is specific to you. The classic method of carbohydrate loading consisted of depleting the glycogen stores with an exhaustive exercise bout, followed by 3 days on a low carbohydrate diet. This was then followed with another glycogen-depleting exercise and 3 days on a high carbohydrate diet. Historically this was difficult to maintain. A modified method was then established to include a hard exercise bout that was followed by 6 days of exercise tapering. During the first 3 days of the taper, a mixed diet consisting of 50% carbohydrates was consumed. During the last 3 days, a higher carbohydrate diet was consumed. But again it did not suit everyone. Athletes have since played around with these ideas, some now steering clear of carbohydrates and running purely on fat stores. Tapering for the race is just as individualised. With the volume of training reduced in the week or two before the big day it is now when niggles can become apparent and you start to doubt the body. The anatomical structures you put under immense pressure at the beginning of the programme have adapted and become extremely robust to the demands you’ve asked of them. But now you’ve backed off. And that too, much like when you started this pathway is a big change for the musculoskeletal system.

In general the aim of tapering is to cut the volume but maintain the intensity. Reducing training load aims to minimise fatigue without restricting the positive training effects. You could quickly feel like you’re dossing this week but what you’re doing is still of benefit. But for tapering to be of benefit it needs to be justified, i.e. preceded by by an overload period with increases in training by up to 50% in the 3-4 weeks prior to the taper phase. This is why all programmes will have had a grueling few weeks of hard work of late. But training intensity seems to be the integral component for peak performance prior to competition. This means quality shorter runs getting used to race pace. The gains from getting this taper period right range from 2 to 9%, so definitely worthwhile getting right (and a lot cheaper than some running shoes claiming similar gains).

 

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