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Posted date: 21-Mar-2016

Tapering and how to do it right




Tapering is the practice of reducing training in the days before a race event. It is well established that this improves race performances. All top performers do this and much research and coaches’ time has gone into working out the most effective way to taper for each of the longer distance races. Swim coaches have led the way with tapering theory and practice, and swimmers have been the most researched athletes in this field.


When you start to taper in preparation for an event your training should have been already completed in the weeks leading up to the start of the taper. The taper period is to allow time for the negative effects of hard training, stiffness, fatigue, mental stress etc. to be eliminated.



Training hard right up to an event risks a sub-optimal performance as you will not have been able to absorb the training and given your body the necessary time to overcompensate. You will ‘get around’ the race fine but at a level much lower than you might have if you had tapered intelligently. Apart from the changes in blood chemistry listed below in the Shepley research you will also restore the shock absorbing capabilities of your leg muscles. This is really important in the longer events when your legs can feel really heavy and inflexible in the closing stages of the race.


In addition to the purely physiological benefits of tapering there is also a psychological dimension to tapering; it gives you time to relax and dissociate from training issues for a while and to build up your store of mental energy in preparation for the event. This way you reach the start line mentally fresh and raring to go.


Sure, you will know of athletes who manage to race every weekend without any break in training or who can run respectable long distance events on consecutive weekends. But these individuals are either remarkably talented, training very lightly between events or are on borrowed time and just about to crash and burn with an injury. It is not a recommended way to train and race.



A clear illustration of the benefits of tapering was demonstrated in a Canadian study (Shepley et al 1992) on experienced athletes who were split into three groups over a one week period and showed the results in the table below.


Training program                                % reduction in training load                          % improvement

No training                                                 100%                                             0%
18 miles easy running                                64%                                               6%
6 miles (500m sessions @max effort)       88%                                               22%                                                                                           


From this experiment, there is evidence that it is best to do short fairly high intensity, but shorter in length sessions during the taper.


In addition to the performance enhancement, the research showed also that the runners in group 3 had:

  • More glycogen in the leg muscles
  • Increased density of red blood cells
  • Increased blood plasma
  • Increased enzyme activity in their leg muscles



A commonly expressed fear among the less experienced is that if they back off hard training they may lose all that great fitness they have acquired over the long weeks of training for the big event. This misconception arises from not understanding how fitness is acquired. Fitness arrives during the recovery periods between training sessions, not during training itself. We have mentioned in previous articles the benefits of having recovery days between hard training sessions, track workouts, hill repetitions, long runs etc. and also a recovery week every fourth week in a training cycle. Tapering is really a more extended recovery period but with some higher intensity training inputs to polish and peak your performance potential.


Runners who are not training more than two to three sessions a week may need very little taper. Simply resting in the last three days before the race may be sufficient. But athletes who are training daily once or more will benefit from a longer, more structured taper. In general the harder you are training and the more sessions you are training, the longer the taper should be. So a triathlete training for an Ironman event or a Marathoner doing intensive preparation for the SCMS will benefit from a taper starting at least two weeks before the event.


In these two cases the last long run (two hours or more) should be done no less than 10-12 days before the event. Reduce both the length and frequency of your workouts but not the intensity. This is another fact of running physiology that is not immediately obvious. Simply resting and running less and slower is not an effective tapering strategy.


You will get the best results from introducing some short intense workouts at or faster than race pace during the tapering period. Some elite marathoners try to run a sharp 1500m race in the final 10 days of their marathon taper. You don’t need to do this but a series of 500m repeats run at near maximum effort with a good recovery will do the trick.


For 5km/10km runners a one week taper would probably work best. Remember, this is a very individual process. If you suddenly feel overwhelmingly fatigued during the taper period then add more rest days and don’t be a slave to a written protocol. This is a time to monitor your condition, get plenty of sleep, pay attention to nutrition and hydration.




5km/10km runners:

Day 10            Last long run (90-120 mins)

Day 9              Rest

Day 8              5 X 500m intervals with 200m walk/jog rest periods

Day 7              Rest or Recovery run 20 – 30 mins easy

Day 6              3 X 500m intervals with 200m walk/jog rest periods

Day 5              Rest or Recovery run 20 – 30 mins

Day 4              Rest

Day 2              1 X 500m intervals with 200m walk/jog rest periods

Day 1              Rest



21km/42km runners:

Day 14            Last long run

Day 13            Rest or easy jog of 20-30 mins

Day 12            4 X 800m strong effort with 400m recovery (walk 200m/jog 200m)

Day 11            Rest

Day 10            Easy recovery run of 20-30 mins

Day 9              5 X 500m near maximal effort with 200m walk/jog rest periods

Day 8              Rest

Day 7              Easy run 20-30 mins

Day 6              3 X 500m near max effort with 200m walk/jog rest periods

Day 5              Rest

Day 4              1 X 500m max effort with 200m walk/jog rest periods

Day 3              Rest

Day 2              Rest

Day 1              Warm up and fartlek run of 20 mins max




These are suggested pattern that has worked well for many athletes, but please adapt and use to your own requirements.



During the last three days before a 21km or 42km, have carbohydrate rich meals but avoid overeating as this won’t help and may cause stomach problems during the race. Your body cannot suddenly absorb double quantities of food so eat the usual amount, leaning towards carbs rather than protein/fats.

Also, don’t over-hydrate. The body will not store water and over-drinking can result in slower race times and even medical problems.



On the mental side, ‘dissociate’ from the upcoming event. It does no good to start keying up for the event too soon. Some athletes may find that an hour before the event is time enough to start the process of charging up the adrenal response with music or whatever rituals of preparation work for you. Don’t waste energy by fretting and stressing three days before the event. 




Karp, Jason.   (2010) Tapering. Modern Athlete and Coach Vol 48 No 4

Noakes, T. The Lore of Running. (2003) Human Kinetics.

Shepley, J.D. et al (1992) Physiological effects of tapering in highly trained athletes. Journal of Applied Physiology. 72 (2) p.706-7011


Text: Michele Tan


This article was originally published in RUN Singapore. Besides the print edition published bimonthly, selected stories can also be found online at