I remember my beginning days. I would train hard for a race and then perhaps take a day or two off before race day. I didn't think too much about it and then raced as best as I could. There was no method to my madness but yet instinctively I knew resting up before a race made good sense.
But there is a method to the madness and no, it isn't one size fits all. Very little is in life.
The Benefits of Tapering:
Let's attack why tapering is beneficial to you. It maximizes your fuel and enzyme stores, gives your muscles time to rest and recovery, and mentally prepares you for race effort. The third reason is a bit shaky to me because during taper I tend to go through a lot of self doubt. It takes visualization and knocking sense back into myself to get me to trust the training I have done. But perhaps that is part of getting my mind ready for race day. I can go through my doubts quietly...or not so quietly...at home on my couch or in bed.
Those reasons are one size fits all. Everyone will benefit from tapering.
How Long to Taper:
The part that is less defined is how long you need to taper. There are suggested guidelines but in all reality, I say experiment with your taper and see what makes you perform the best come race day. But generally if you are racing a 5K a 3 day taper is fine. Oh my! I guess that day to two I took off in the beginning when I was racing 5K's made good sense after all! For a 10K you will want to taper 3-5 days (you can see the ranges are already expanding to take into account individual differences). Heading out to a half marathon? Be prepared to taper 7-10 days. Are you about to race a marathon or an ultra? Plan for a 14-20 day taper. Personally, I do 20 days and gradually move into my taper.
The Marathon Taper:
Since marathons are my big race right now I would love to talk more about this tapering strategy. When you are tapering for the big day still follow your weekly running pattern. It is fine to continue to run on the days you generally run. The last long run should be 2-3 weeks out. I generally do a 20 mile run three weeks out from race day. This is my last big long run. My long run in the first week of taper is generally 10-13 miles depending on my training plan for the race. The last big workout (think your last true effort) should be 7-10 days before race day. I do allow speed work in my second week of tapering but I do less repeats and my overall mileage per day is being drastically cut. I do like to add a little pick me up to my running the Wednesday before race day but it isn't mile repeats, it isn't sprints, just a little controlled fartlek fun but not too much. And I do love to run 1-2 miles the day before race day to shake my legs out and ease my nerves.
If you put this all into a mathematical formula here is what my taper looks like. I take my weekly mileage in the weeks leading up to my taper as my reference point and look at what I have been doing. For week one of taper, I cut my mileage by 15%. Week 2, I cut my mileage by 40%. Please note, my mileage cuts are all based on my pre-tapering mileage. In my final week of tapering, I run 25% of my pre-taper mileage in the 6 days before race day. This strategy is working well for me.
If you want textbook guidance the recommendation is to run 60% of your average mileage two weeks prior to race day with a long run less than 2 hours and 30% of your average mileage the week of the race with a long run of 60-75 minutes. I am pretty much on par with this except for the long run part. By running daily it gets hard to incorporate longer runs while hitting the road...or treadmill....every day but what I am doing is working for me. You need to find what works best for you!
Tips for Tapering:
Cutting back mileage and adding some easy runs isn't enough to make a taper successful. You don't want to do all that and "ruin" your taper by taking on other big projects or tasks. This is not the time to paint you whole house blue or dig out a new garden in the backyard. Don't do a lot of fast running unless you are tapering for a short and fast race. I do small speed sessions but keep them in check. Think just a few seconds of a pick me up or a couple of mile repeats at a faster pace but not my true speed work pace. Eat well and hydrate. Fueling your body is essential and get good fuel inside of you. I don't know about you but for me pre-race nerves can get me craving not-so-healthy foods. Now isn't the time to indulge in tons of sweets and yes, you should avoid access alcohol. It dehydrates you after all. Start trying to sleep a bit more. You are running less. Convert that time to sleeping more if you can. Motivate yourself with movies, books, blogs, whatever! Visualize success and go over your race plans. And personally, I never spend a lot of time at the expo. I pick up my race packet, perhaps look for a moment or two, but I head out of there and continue to rest, eat well, and hydrate.
Daily Gratitude: I am thankful for my dinner out last night with dear hubby.
Daily Affirmation: I can find peace in chaos when I put my mind to it.