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We Know We Have To Taper—But Why Exactly?

Tapering might just be the strangest phenomenon in running. You’ve somehow managed to survive putting your body through a regimen of pain and exhaustion for months. Now, finally, the finish line is in sight, and you’re giving your body a break before the final push. Your runs are “easier,” and you’re getting all the sleep in the world—so why do you suddenly feel worse than ever?

Let’s define “taper.”

First off, tapering does not mean skipping an entire week of running prior to your race. Tapering is a gradual decrease in training leading up to the big event. Did you get that? Gradual.

Now, you’ve heard from plenty of sources that you should taper, but why? Doesn’t practice make perfect? Won’t you lose fitness?

The easiest way to think about it is this: For the last several days/weeks/months, you’ve been intentionally breaking down your muscles. Presuming you’ve been eating right, those muscles have been rebuilding themselves on days when you rest or go out for a light jog. Tapering works exactly the same way, only amplified. It’s the final chance for those muscles to fully repair themselves before your big race!

Tapering also allows the body to refuel in a very specific way. We’ve all heard of “bonking,” which is when your body runs out of glycogen (i.e., long sugar chains that are your body’s favorite fuel). During training, you’ve been constantly burning glycogen, so tapering—when you are not burning up so much glycogen—allows your body to fully replenish its stores.

“Fine. I’m tapering. But I feel awful. Is it all in my head?”

Yes and no. Let’s start with endorphins. They’re real, physiological hormones, and they affect your mood. When you run, the endorphins you produce give your brain a feeling similar to a shot of morphine. Therefore, if you run a lot, your brain becomes accustomed to a fairly regular, fairly substantial dose of “morphine.” So when you run less? You’re essentially going through withdrawal. Sluggishness, depression, self-doubts—they’re all entirely understandable and very, very common. (But just think how awesome those endorphins are going to feel on race day!)

Beyond a physical dependency, running creates a mental dependency, too. After all, training is demanding; to fit it all in, you wind up structuring a lot of your life around running. Wake up, run, work. Wake up, work, lift. Wake up, run, work . . . and maaaayyybe happy hour. (But you can’t stay out too late—you don’t want to jeopardize your long run tomorrow.) During taper, that whole schedule gets thrown into flux. Extra sleep is a luxury you usually can’t afford, but wait, aren’t you usually up and running by 7 a.m.? Maybe this taper thing was a dumb idea, and you’re actually just being lazy. Maybe you’re not fit enough! And hold on . . . are you gaining weight?

Well, you’re not dumb, you’re not lazy, and you are fit. So those taper demons are entirely mental. But the weight thing—that’s a little more real. A little more real, and a lot more necessary.

“Everyone, and I mean everyone is gonna put on a couple of pounds as their body hydrates and holds water weight during taper, as well as replenishing energy stores,” explains Josh Maio, Head Coach of the New York City-based running team Gotham City Runners. This is weight you’re supposed to gain, caused by recovery mechanisms you need to perform your best. So don’t panic! Your body is, in essence, arming itself for the battle that will ensue on race day.

“What about my ankle? It really hurts!”

This is a phenomenon that every runner has experienced: You’ve made it through training unscathed, but now that you’re in taper, that ankle you twisted six years ago—it’s aching! Also, your hamstring is feeling pretty weird. Could you have developed a stress fracture overnight?

Phantom aches and pains are a very real part of the tapering process. Your body is healing! You know how, when a scab heals, it itches? Think of taper like that. You’ve broken down your muscles, and now they’re repairing themselves. Let them do it! If you don’t, you might end up with a pain that is much more real.

“We see many of our patients for tune-ups right before their races,” says Dr. Scott Duke, owner of Duke Chiropractic in New York City. He explains that this can help quell anxiety and will help them to run more economically. However, sometimes when the race is close and they are in such great shape, runners tend to keep up the intensity instead of tapering. “Hamstring tears, stress fractures, IT bands finally buckling . . . when they should have been tapering and cutting their volume and intensity, they kept it going and wound up injured.”

If that’s not convincing enough, consider this: Any physical gains you make the week before your race will be useless for that race. Fitness gains take several weeks to take effect, which means that by the time you realize any gains you’ve made during taper week, it’ll be too late—you’ll have already run the race!

“All right, I’m convinced. What’s the best way to taper?”

While there is no cookie cutter method, a good rule of thumb is to gradually cut volume by a percentage of what you were running during training. (Notice that word again? Gradual!) However, you should absolutely continue to run a few days of high intensity (i.e., race specific workouts) so that your body maintains neuromuscular control—that is, so it remembers how to run fast!

The preferred duration of a taper is debatable. There is endless discussion in the running community over whether tapering should begin two or three weeks before the big day. Three weeks is very common and gives you ample time for rest and recovery. However, it also gives your brain seven more days to go haywire (i.e., Am I still doing enough? Am I losing fitness? Am I getting fat?), which can lead to exercising too much . . . which can ruin your taper.

At the risk of “choosing sides” on that debate, here’s what a 3-week approach might look like:

3 weeks out: Cut your volume (mileage) by 20 percent of mileage; but keep frequency and intensity of runs the same as you’ve been doing
2 weeks out: Cut your volume by 40-50 percent (that is, another 20-30 percent on top of last week); keep frequency and intensity the same (don’t lose those speed workouts!)
Race Week: Cut your volume by 60-70 percent; keep frequency the same, and make sure to have at least one session of speed work

Tapering is one of many tough but essential parts of training for a race. You’re doing right by your body, even when your head may say otherwise. If you feel like crap or something feels “off,” remember: There is nothing wrong with you! Be kind to your body, let it recover, and it will pay you back tenfold on race day.

Allison Goldstein

Allison Goldstein

Allison Goldstein is a freelance writer and editor based in Jersey City, NJ. When she's not at her computer or reading a book, she can be found chasing her Gotham City Runner teammates around the various NYC boroughs. Connect with Allison via her website.