Thursday, 9 June 2011

The anti-taper

Posted by speedygeoff on Thursday, June 09, 2011 with 5 comments
There are times when the runner needs to ease back on training distances and/or training intensity. Leading up to major races is possibly not one of those times. I feel that the idea of tapering before important races is over-rated.

Conventional wisdom says that a reduction in training before a major event will produce the best results. Many runners have been known to follow religiously this idea every time they race, regardless of relevant circumstances such as how their training is progressing and how much training they actually do and how fast that training is.

Some runners start to reduce their training volume as early as three weeks before their event; way too soon in most circumstances.

There are all sorts of reasons to ignore the “taper” idea and “train through” instead. Here are some for your consideration.

1. You are in a phase where you are building up distance following injury, illness, slackness, or busy-ness. As a result you are gaining in fitness. Therefore don’t be tempted to ease back: continue the build-up phase even if you are still running an important race. Want convincing of this? Look back through your training diary and see how many of your best times were run “unexpectedly” at the end of your longest and/or hardest weeks.

2. You have built up your training and are now running as far and as fast as your plans suggest you should. All is going well, the training pattern is such that easier days or rest days allow you sufficient recovery to repeat the efforts of the hard days. Why ease off? You have learned to handle fatigue and to recover properly between sessions, why ease back the training?

3. Your important run coming up this weekend is only one of a series culminating in “the big one” later in the year. Take the long term view: train through this one and see how you go. You might do worse, you might do better. How will you know if you don’t give it a try?

4. Is your running routine important to you? Some people can feel out of sorts when they follow a taper program, as it throws them out of routine. You’ll feel flat, you’ll feel sluggish, you won’t warm up properly because you are not used to the change to less running that you have had to endure. The literature will suggest you are somehow addicted to lots of running and desperately afraid of losing fitness, however don’t be fooled and don’t let the “experts” make you feel guilty about being reluctant to run less than usual. Ignore those thoughts, what you’re feeling is actually true; all that running is in fact doing you good. Sticking to your normal schedule may your best way of preparing for races.

5. How important is the long term? If you forever go through a cycle of taper/race/recover, you are compromising long term fitness goals. Learn how much racing is good for you and fit it into a schedule where you can train on, train through.

I predict that the tapering obsession will go the way of the built-up running-shoe obsession. People are now moving towards running barefoot because they have discovered that decades of running shoe wisdom was not so wise after all. Similarly in the future it may be discovered that tapering is not required when weekly, fortnightly, or monthly patterns of training include appropriate built-in rest and recovery segments.

If you have to taper, presumably because you are suffering from fatigue through over-training or over-racing, or because your knowledgeable friends would be aghast if you didn’t, or because you believe in the “science” which advises you to do so, or you are feeling mentally stressed and need to relax a bit more than usual, I wouldn’t worry too much about reducing the speed of your training, but you might reduce the distances by a small margin. Three weeks out seems crazy however; cutting distance down by 20-30% in the last week should suffice in most cases.

And after a very hard race, something different, I’d advise keeping the distances up, but cutting the speed back a little until recovery is complete. Too many people stop running after a hard long race, but after such a race, resting delays recovery, while easy running promotes recovery and allows a return to full training much sooner.

Would I have done any worse if I had not eased off for my major races? Perhaps not, because often my best times came in minor races after long, hard weeks when I didn’t ease off.

But here’s a word of caution. If you have been training hard and you have picked up an injury, or have been feeling altogether unwell, or are feeling mentally exhausted for whatever reason, you had better taper, as you certainly won’t perform under those circumstances by training through. Or, heaven forbid, you could do the sensible thing and skip that particular race and rest up until you feel well enough to resume full training. It’s up to you. Actually, it’s all up to you, as always.

Comments and feedback welcome!


  1. In my 27+ years of running I've done both - ie, totally obsessed over diligently tapering on the one hand and continuing to train exactly as per normal on the other - leading in to races. With the benefit of hindsight I can honestly say that the biggest factor influencing race performance has been training pre race not tapering. So .... now my approach is to train as per normal but just wound back a notch - ie, nothing too long and nothing too hard/fast, and 1-2 days off per week. Pre race I think most bodies benefit from routine without stress or fatigue. It's as simple and as complicated as that :)

  2. Thanks Jog Blog, that is just what I have been thinking too.

  3. Very, very interesting. I cut back from a three-week taper to two weeks and then to one and a half (before a marathon). I didn't think about it carefully, though, I just kind of felt...I didn't need that much taper. So your points bring it into clearer focus. I especially like point no. 4.
    I think I'll go with very little taper for 10Ks and Halfs, and a week of minimal taper, basically the last 3-4 days, before a marathon.

  4. On a related point, I also think that carbo loading for marathons is over rated. I've felt better and therefore raced better when I've increased the carbs a bit in the 3 days pre race but not overdone it. I think eating well is what is important, not over-eating. Of course that's only part of the equation. Just as training and/or tapering have to be married with pacing and racing smart on the day, eating well pre race has to be married with smart hydration and carb intake during a marathon. Not doing one of these can quickly undo the benefit of doing the other.

    Finally ..... I think differently about both tapering and carbo loading for ultramarathons. That's a whole different story ....

    Lucky for you, I have to run now, and so I'm getting off your blog :)

  5. Pete Magill had an article in Running Times - "Opposite attractions, positive results", about doing the opposite for various training problems, methods.

    On Tapers, he mentions the 'Reduced Taper' - anything from a couple of weeks to a couple of days, depending on the race distance. Mentioned Peter Gilmore who ran a 2-minute marathon PB of 2:12:45 by doing a much reduced taper (than he'd previously used).