It’s the bit that every runner dreads and the husbands, wives, partners and children of the runners fear.
That period of time where you have completed the build, the hard work is done, you have locked away all the credit in your running bank and now all that is left to do is reduce your workload, eat well, sleep well and recharge your batteries for the coming task.
For some runners it is a much needed mental and physical break from the months of relentless training, but for others (many) it is like taking a bird and stapling its wings shut. The restlessness, the frustration, the anxious energy can be unmanageable and also take its toll on relationships with others.
There are countless different recipes or protocols for the ideal taper and everyone seems to have a different opinion. My opinion is that the taper needs to fit the taperer. Obviously there are stacks of variables when it comes to the challenge that the runner is taking on – distance, pace, experience with distance being run, tolerance to food intake, pre-existing injuries, temperature on the day, etc etc etc. But what about the mental and emotional needs of the runner and how that affects their psychology on race day? I believe it is just as important to match the taper to the kind of personality that the runner has.
Are they a very relaxed and casual kind of person? Are they generally fairly highly strung? Is there an element of fear in them about the race? Do they need to do some reasonably fast runs close to the day so they can maintain confidence in their ability going into the race?
All these things should be considered.
Obviously there is a physiological need for the body to rest and recover during the taper period, but if that is at the expense of getting the runner in the ideal mental state, then a balance needs to be struck.
I’ll give you examples of how different a taper can be from one person to the next…
One person I coach recently ran a half marathon and her taper involved a small reduction in the distance of her long run the weekend before then a short easy run on the Monday but a hard and fast tempo run on the Wednesday before the race. Normally speed work in the week of a race is a no no, but from working with this person for the last year or so, we’ve discovered that she races better when she can feel her pace is on target, and doesn’t need more than a couple of days to recover in time for the race.
Another person I coach has an incredibly high training load and also a very busy and demanding job. He manages it all very well and can maintain long periods of training without the need for much rest. Experience has taught me that when he can’t train for a week or more for whatever reason, that he gets extremely anxious and his first run back after a break is generally like releasing a caged animal. So his taper usually involves dropping his load back two weeks out and then giving him pretty much no run running at all in the week of the race. His wife hates me for it, his kids know not to talk to him and the conversations we have in that week are usually me just telling him to breathe, relax and stay away from sharp objects. When he hits the start line though, he never fails to produce his best running to date.
What is the right recipe for you though? There are a few ways to test the different versions of tapering on yourself when you are not at that critical time when the race is looming, and using yourself as a lab rat is the always going to give you more reliable information than reading a book or downloading a generic training program from the internet. If you have a coach or are scouting for one right now, ask them about their thoughts on tapering. Do they use a specific formula (and why) or do they change it depending on the individual’s physiological and psychological needs?
For your next race, think hard about how your body feels and what it needs going into the event. Also think about what your head and your heart need. Maybe it’s not what the masses are doing…
You are not made in a mould, so neither should your training be.