All you can do when training for a race is your best. Things happen — you miss a workout or two here or there, or have a setback due to injury — but following your training plan the best you can is key. It can be easy to panic as race day gets closer and you feel unprepared, but it is possible to undo all of the hard work you’ve put into training during the last few days and weeks leading up to your race if you’re not careful.
That fear you’re experiencing can’t be eased by putting in more miles; that actually can do more harm than good.
“If you’re having a hard time letting go of the fear, take time to review your training log and focus on the work you have put in, and recall the workouts you have felt the strongest,” says Sandra Gallagher-Mohler, CEO and coach at IRunTons. “Right before your race is the time to put your energy into focusing on the things you can control that will help you most on race day, such as sleep, proper nutrition and enjoying the gift of being a runner.”
The “things” Gallagher-Mohler refers to most commonly happen during the taper phase of training, which can make all the difference for a successful race day.
WHAT EXACTLY IS TAPERING?
So you’re looking at your training schedule and for the last few days or weeks — depending on the length of your race — you see something that says “taper.” What does that mean? Tapering for a race involves decreasing your mileage so your body can be physically—and mentally—fresh on race day.
“In its simplest form, tapering is reducing the level of training before a race,” explains Jonathan Cane, head coach and co-founder of City Coach Multisport. “It consists of a reduction in training volume, and, to a lesser extent, intensity.”
As mentioned, you typically only taper for a few days if you are running a shorter race such as a 5K, and the process can last anywhere from 2–4 weeks when training for a longer race such as a half-marathon, marathon or ultra.
It may be natural to think a taper correlates with taking time off to rest before a race, but it is far from that. Though you are running fewer miles, this doesn’t mean the intensity of your workouts should change.
“In the final two weeks before their race, the athlete will still run the same number of times per week and will still perform the same number of harder workouts per week [to stay in a consistent training and recovery rhythm], but their training volume will be reduced,” adds Dan Walters, coach and owner of DWRunning. “Stick to your daily routines and timing, and instead adjust how much training is done to rest up for race day.”
THE BIGGEST TAPER MISTAKES
Walters points out there are a lot of opinions and strategies on exactly how to taper. That being said, there are a few things everyone can agree you shouldn’t do when preparing for a race. We’ve rounded up some of the most common mistakes athletes make that can actually hurt them come race day.
1. NOT CUSTOMIZING YOUR TAPER
Because of all of those taper opinions and strategies Walters mentioned, it is important to customize your taper. “I have some athletes who need a longer taper [due to how well they respond to rest, their health, etc.] and some who need a taper of a week or less [due to feeling flat from abnormal reductions in training],” he explains. “Like with the actual training an athlete completes, tapers are unique to each individual.” You may need to experiment from season to season to find out what works best for you, but it all depends on the length of your race, how much work you put in (as well as the aerobic base you started with) and what kind of rest makes you feel fresh. Walters typically uses a two-week taper for most of his athletes, but as he says, there are “no rules.” In this case, listening to your body and consulting with a coach helps you fine tune your taper to your training and race-day goals.
2. STOPPING INTENSE WORKOUTS ALTOGETHER
“The biggest mistake people often make in their taper is they reduce both volume and intensity,” advises Gallagher-Mohler. “This can lead to de-conditioning and a stale feeling on race day.” It may seem counterproductive to get rest while doing intense workouts, but because you are reducing your overall mileage, these workouts will leave you feeling strong and keep your body performing. “For the same reasons, don’t skip running altogether,” she adds. “This sends your brain and body the message that it’s downtime, when we want to be sending the message that it’s go-time.”
3. WORRYING ABOUT WEIGHT GAIN
Athletes often gain weight during training in what is referred to as “train gain.” This is most common during the taper, when you still need to fuel your body but aren’t logging as many miles. If this happens, don’t panic. “As an athlete carb loads, there’s always an associated weight gain because glycogen holds three times its weight in water; if a marathoner doesn’t put on a little weight, I worry because it indicates that they aren’t fueling effectively,” mentions Cane. “I try to explain this to my athletes so they don’t make the mistake of going hungry during the late stages of the taper.”
4. SKIMPING ON SLEEP
It can be easy to be a bit on edge during the taper period, leading to some sleepless nights and a bit more anxiety than usual. However, this isn’t the time to skip sleep; even though you aren’t in race recovery-mode yet, you do want to give yourself some down time. “Many athletes find themselves feeling antsy when they have more time on their hands during the taper and end up filling that necessary lull with to-do list items that keep them on their feet and burning mental and physical energy,” shares Gallagher-Mohler. “Sleep and recovery are how your body restores itself, so be sure to get your 7–10 hours of sleep each night and let your body work its rebuilding magic.”
5. NOT TRUSTING THE TAPER
If you have a running coach, you’ve probably heard some form of a “trust the process” pep talk, and that is exactly what Cane advises. “For Type-A personalities especially, holding back through the taper requires more discipline than pushing through a hard workout,” he continues. “I always explain to them that it’s a different application of discipline, but it’s just as important.” Because the taper requires mental discipline, it is a great time to work on your mental preparation so you are ready for any obstacle that may come your way on race day. “Nothing you can do in the final days or weeks of training will significantly change your fitness for the better, so it is best to be satisfied with the training you were able to complete, even if that training was not as high in volume or quality as you’d hoped,” adds Walters.