Master ‘Taper Tantrums’ for Your Best Race

How to optimize your pre-race taper

If you have a race on the horizon and you’re feeling on edge, grouchy and suffering from mysterious aches and pains, you may be suffering from “Taper Tantrums.” Though you may not want to admit it, the condition is real and many of you are likely nodding in agreement. If you’re not familiar with the concept, consider yourself lucky.

“Taper Tantrums” occur when you cut back mileage and workouts in preparation for a goal race. When you’re used to pushing hard and completing challenging workouts, tapering can make you feel restless and anxious. Suddenly you question your training and phantom pains start to creep up during easy runs.

While it’s important to maintain a little of that pre-race adrenaline, a well-planned taper can help minimize stress and maximize your performance on race day. Although the specifics of tapering vary depending on race distance and individual preference, there are many concepts that are universal.

To get the most out of race day, you need to adhere to a smart tapering period in the preceding weeks. Photo: Brian Metzler

Tapering: The Big Picture

Let’s address some of the general concepts of tapering before briefly looking at those that are more race specific.

Reduce volume

While a marathon taper may begin as early as three weeks prior to race day and a 5K may only require two weeks, tapering for any race will involve decreasing your mileage. The concept is simple: reduce the volume of work so that your legs feel fresh and strong on race day. The way runners reduce volume varies widely and is frequently debated. We’ll discuss a few more specifics below.

Run a similar number of days

Rather than increasing rest days during your taper, it’s better to reduce the volume on the days you usually run. If you’re used to running five to six days each week, stick with that. Just reduce the length of each run slightly.

Add extra rest if needed

While maintaining your weekly schedule is ideal if you’re healthy and injury free, certain situations call for additional rest. If you’re struggling with soreness, mild pain or exhaustion, an extra day off during your taper may help. If you’ve had any minor illness (a cold, for example), extra rest may benefit you as well.

Allow at least a week between your final hard workout and race day

You don’t want to carry any fatigue into the race – but you still want your body to be firing on all cylinders. Aim to run the last hard workout during your final big week of training so you benefit from it without risking being too tired during the race itself.

DO maintain some intensity during race week

Even though you have reduced your overall training volume, keep a moderate amount of intensity in your workouts during your taper to avoid feeling flat and stale on race day. Tapering is always a balancing act and you want to strive to be like Goldilocks with your workout intensity: not too much, not too little, but just right. It’s easier said than done!

Keep workouts short & race specific

Now is not the time to try something new. Stick with short workouts that are race-specific, such as 3 to 5 miles at goal marathon pace (GMP) or 4×1,000-meter intervals at 10K pace to prep for a 10K. During taper these should never be so intense that you feel totally depleted.

Focus on nutrition: As with your workouts, this is not the time for something new. Try to eat the healthiest version of your own diet, focusing on whole foods and high-quality carbohydrates. Don’t dramatically change anything or overstuff yourself in the weeks or days prior to your race.

Pay attention to recovery

Since you have some extra time, use it to focus on recovery. Get plenty of sleep and maintain your schedule of mobility work, strength training, and foam rolling.

Prepare yourself mentally

Mental preparation for races is often overlooked, especially during the time crunch of heavy training. Use the extra time to visualize your race. Consider how you’ll address challenging situations as they arise, and picture yourself finishing strong. It might feel a bit silly if you have never tried visualization in the past, but it can be amazingly beneficial.

While these concepts apply to all runners no matter what the race distance, there are some differences between tapering for shorter and longer races.

If your goal race is a 5K or 10K, a 10- to 14-day taper is probably sufficient. A half marathon typically requires a full two weeks, while an ideal marathon taper is usually 14 to 21 days.

Research has shown that tapering can improve your performance by about 3 percent. That may not sound like much, but for a 4-hour marathoner that can mean a difference of 7 minutes!

If you’ve put a lot of effort into planning your season and training, don’t leave time on the table by not executing a proper taper.

Taper Specifics

Below are some guidelines for tapering for specific race distances. Note that the cutback in mileage refers to a percentage of your average weekly volume. Tapering is very individual, and it’s up to you to figure out what works best. Use these as a starting point, and over time test out various taper strategies to determine what makes you most successful.

5K & 10K

– Cut mileage by about 50 percent in the week leading up to your race.

– Execute one or two short, sharpening workouts in the final seven days, allowing adequate recovery time.

Half marathon

– Run your last long run two weeks out from your race.

– Cut mileage back to about 75 percent two weeks out and 50 percent one week out.

– Perform one to two short tempo or half-marathon pace workouts during your taper. The week of your race can include some shorter, faster repetitions (like, 4x400m at 5K pace) but give yourself full recovery and don’t run any faster than 5K pace.

Marathon

– Run your final long run two to three weeks out from your race.

– Cut mileage back to 80 to 90 percent three weeks out, 60 to 65 percent two weeks out and 35 to 45 percent one week out for a three-week taper.

– 10 to 14 days out, run a shorter “long” run that includes miles at your goal marathon pace (GMP).

– Five to seven days out, run a shorter set of GMP miles (3 to 5 miles, for example).

While it may be impossible to eliminate the stress of tapering, a successful strategy will leave you recharged and ready to go after a new PR!

Jason Fitzgerald

Jason Fitzgerald is a 2:39 marathoner and the USATF-certified coach behind Strength Running, an award-winning blog and podcast that helps runners set personal bests. His work has appeared in Runner’s World, The Washington Post, Health Magazine and many other major media publications. Follow his work on Twitter at @JasonFitz1 and at StrengthRunning.com.