Tapering and Trusting the Process

Updated: Jun 29, 2021

Tapering. Peaking. Absorbing chronic training load to optimise race day competitiveness for peak performance. Getting fit is the easy part; getting fit at the right time is the difficult part!

Tapering has been shown to allow expected improvement in endurance running by 2-6% when done in an optimal manner for the individual. Effective tapering strategies are generally associated with a reduction in training volume by ~40-60%, whilst maintaining frequency and intensity for approximately 2 weeks. Depending on the athlete, this may be shorter or longer. For B or C races there may be no taper at all. Moreover, tapering - for the vast majority of athletes - is extremely beneficial. So why do athletes struggle with the taper? Why do some dread it?

For the athlete it brings on questioning of whether you are prepared, anxiety over whether all the work will pay off and it brings on questions of identity and self worth. Above all though, distance runners are creatures of habit and dropping mileage, the number of runs and having more free time can be a shock to the system. Running is often a stress relief time too, so when that is taken away (and with a tough race coming up…) we start stressing out even more. Additionally, taper tantrums can occur because athletes start to feel beat up due to cellular stimuli allowing adaptation and absorbing the chronic training load. This is exacerbated by the underlying stress of the taper itself.

To some extents, tapering is a test of an athlete’s confidence. If an athlete has done the work, in theory, they should trust the taper and appreciate that it is needed to optimise race day performance and for longevity. Some athletes may not taper hard as a self defence mechanism stemming from a lack of confidence. However, in order to shoot your shot, it is essential to embrace strategies such as the taper.

This week will be my first taper week of the year ahead of the Serpent Trail 50k. I love running and have always hated tapering. However, this time I am more confident in knowing I need this time to absorb a large training load and be physically and psychologically prepared. I am trying to keep my routine such as the same frequency of sessions but less volume. I don’t want to shoot myself in the foot. I want to optimise my race day readiness and trusting in the taper is part of trusting in the process. It is important to recognise that it is natural during the taper to feel tired and have thoughts of niggles and doubts. It is normal to miss training normally and question whether you are benefitting from the taper. However, if you are confident in knowing you can’t get any faster from training this week through training but only through optimising race readiness. I will aim to enhance muscle tension through a mini session, hill sprints whilst ensuring I am feeling mentally and physically recovered. I will also be sure to remember that on race day you are unlikely to feel magic (you never do) but trust that the work is already done.

Taper tantrums are normal but it should become more normal for athletes to place as much emphasis on recovery as training. This is something I struggle with but am working on. Onwards and upwards!