Tapering can be a double edged sword. Get it wrong and you can bring all the hard work undone. Get it right and everything will come together on race day. We’re super lucky to have one of Australia’s top distance coaches Sean Williams give us such a detailed insight into his beliefs on tapering. The information below is invaluable and any athlete can take something away from it!
Some people believe that a taper should be quite extensive, while others find that they get lethargic from them. What are your thoughts on this?
You are right in that runners vary in their opinions on tapering. There is an extensive range of tapers. However tapering, or to taper, means to cut back on running/training in the time before a race. The ultimate taper will lead to the ultimate race. Racing at one’s best, or peaking, is the primary reason that runners taper. If a taper is too long then de-conditioning of the runner can occur. If the taper is too short then the runner may still be sore or fatigued. Planning your final training period before a race, or the taper, is important to produce your best possible performance on the day. A very simple way of looking at it is that in the final 5-7 days before any race, your real work is over. Don’t push too hard in this period or you’ll be too tired to race well. Most runners will benefit from cutting back a lot on volume whilst keeping a bit of speed in their taper. A small minority like to keep their volume up and cut back on speed. The bottom line is you must let your racing muscles rest and rebuild for the race. When runners complain about being lethargic during a taper it can often be associated with nerves and anxiety. If a race means a lot to them they are likely to burn up a lot of nervous energy constantly thinking about the race. Sleepless or restless nights in the final week before a big race should be avoided if possible. Good sleeping hours in this period is like money in the bank- energy to be drawn upon when your body needs it most. It is quite normal for runners to get far less sleep than usual in the actual night before a race. This is ok if the 7 or so sleeps in the preceding week have been solid. The “mileage junkies” find that they just don’t feel normal if they cut back too much on mileage. They become anxious and can often lose confidence if they don’t keep up their usual volume. The use of a sports psychologist could assist this type of runner in gaining confidence in a decent taper program. There have been the odd exceptions where some runners haven’t targeted a race at all and smash themselves with both volume and intensity in the lead up to the best race of their lives. These are definitely exceptions.
What are the major benefits of tapering for a race? What are the physical and mental gains an athlete gets?
The major benefit is that the runner should be at their physical and metal peak for a race and thus perform at their best on the day. I have three simple rules about racing:
Rule 1– You have to make the start line
Rule 2– You have to make the finish line
Rule 3– You have to make the finish line as fast as possible, hopefully beating as many in the field as possible.
You can only achieve number 3 if rules 1 and 2 have first been accomplished. “Making the start line” means keeping injury and illness free, as one should not race injured or sick. Injuries are far less likely when a runner is doing less training. Niggles are often likely to disappear or improve as well. Muscle tissue damage that resulted from a hard training block will decrease. Energy levels will usually increase. This is because the energy reserves such as creatine, phosphate and glycogen will be restored. The ability to run at optimum speed for various distances will increase. This is because fast twitch muscle fibres improve in contraction speed, plus slow twitch muscle fibres should be more resilient during lighter training periods.
Mentally, a runner will be gaining in confidence as their body feels so much faster and stronger. They can feel the speed in their legs and this can be extremely empowering. They are holding themselves back before it is time to execute the perfect race – the time to rock and roll!
You coach athletes that compete in varying distances. How does a taper for a 5km race differ from that for a 10km, half or marathon?
Tapers ranging from 10 – 21 days appear to yield the best results for marathons and ultras. Tapers of 2 or longer weeks are usually done in a “stepped-down” fashion to prevent de-conditioning. Shorter tapers of 4-10 days appear best for shorter events (e.g., 5 km up to half marathons). It is crucial to avoid overtraining in those final training weeks before the taper. In fact, I emphasise to my runners to avoid overtraining at all costs during any training phase. Tapers for middle distance track runners (800m- 5000m) are a bit trickier in that lead up races and time trials are often incorporated into the taper, so it can be more of a juggling act.
Some races are considered ‘A’ races, while others are stepping-stones. How do you taper for the lesser goals?
It can depend on the importance of the stepping stone race. The less important the lead up race, the less of a taper is required. 2.37 marathoner Jane Fardell has been preparing for the 2014 Paris Marathon in early April. She has recently “raced” in two half marathons as she builds up to Paris. The first half was at Orange, which was a hilly course at 900m elevation with a lot of the course on dirt roads. She only ran 1.24 but it was off a 200km training week and was part of a long run of 34km. The 200km training week included two speed sessions and plenty of upper range aerobic runs. Exactly seven days later she paced a marathon to 21.1km in Taipei, hitting the half marathon in 1.17.00. This was off a 150km week and was run at a controlled pace- not flat out. That week only had one session of 30x100m hill sprints with a quick jog back off a 1 minute cycle three days before the race. So you can see there were two races over the same distance but with different preparations, yet both were stepping stones to a marathon “A Race”.
What does a taper period look like?
There are many ways to skin a cat. Here is just one example: Ben St Lawrence – A normal “Hard” training week for Ben in February, 2011 consisted of around 160km per week, including three speed sessions and one long run of 28-30km. Examples of speed sessions included; • 9x1km on grass track in 2.40 (4min cycle) with last rep sub 2.35. • 10x400m on grass track in 61 (2min cycle) – 5min break. 4km threshold run @ 3.05 pace • 30x120m hill sprint with quick jog back. Each up/down off a 1.00 cycle. • 12km threshold run @ 3.05 pace • 5km windsprints on grass track in 14.00 • 4x2km in 5.30 (9.00 cycle) • 8x500m gradual uphill loop in 1.22 (2.20 cycle)- 5min break. 4km threshold @ 3.05 pace. So a hard training week for Ben would look like this: Friday- am 16km @ 4.10 pace; pm 6km @ 4.20 pace. Saturday- am 4km warm up, 12km threshold run @ 3.05 pace, 4km cool down. Sunday- am 29km @ 4.05 pace. Monday- am 16km @ 4.10 pace; pm 7km @ 4.30 pace. Tuesday- am 8km @ 4.20 pace; pm-4km warm up, 5km windsprints, 4km cool down. Wednesday- am 22km @ 4.05 pace; pm 7km @ 4.30 pace. Thursday-am 7km @ 4.20 pace; pm: 4km warm up, 30x120m hill sprint with quick jog back. Each up/down off a 1.00 cycle. 4km cool down. That is a 163km week. Here is the “taper week” leading up to one of Ben’s best races. It was a 5000m in Melbourne on March 3, 2011, where he came second in a world class field in 13min 10sec. Friday – am- 12km @ 4.20 pace; pm- 6km @ 4.30 pace. Saturday- am: 4km warm up, 4km in 11.30 (5min break). 5x100m hill sprint with quick jog back off 1min cycle, 4km cool down. Sunday- am: 15km @ 4.25 pace. Monday- am: 6km @ 4.40 pace; pm: 4km warm up, TRACK; 800m in 2.05 (4.30 cycle), 400m in 62 (2.30 cycle) 4x200m in 31 (1.30 cycle) 4km jog. Tuesday- pm- 8km @ 4.40 pace Wednesday- pm: 7km @ 4.40 pace Thursday-am: 4km @ 5.00 pace; pm: RACE: 3km jog, Melbourne Track Classic 5000m- 2nd in 13.10 (pb), 3km jog That is a 91km week.
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