As a coach, working with groups of runners is always interesting. For one thing, it’s never entirely clear what any particular athlete wants to get out of a session, or get out of coaching, so we ask lots of open questions and sometimes get some interesting replies, often in the form of further questions. My advice, by the way, would always be to ask that burning question, whether you think it makes you appear clueless or not!
It’s easy as a moderately experienced runner and an engaged coach with some education behind me to become complacent about things that become second-nature in training. So it’s a pleasure to answer a question in the field such as, ‘how should I taper for my next trail race?’
Naturally, there’s a short answer and a long one. The short answer in the field is: what has worked for you before? If it works, do that. If it hasn’t worked, or if you just don’t know, then my broad guidance would be: for a short race (5k), take a day or two off or with very minimal training directly before race day; for a longer race (10k-half-marathon), take a week; for a marathon or ultra, your taper might begin by reducing mileage 3 weeks out, but certainly reducing training volume (i.e. mileage) while maintaining frequency (amount of runs) in the 2 weeks prior to race day. In discussions with head coach Stuart Hale, he would recommend not running at all in the two days prior to race day.
There are some further bits of advice that I would like to add, hence the blog post. Tapering is as much an art as a science. So, to introduce the complexity, all we have to say is that each individual reacts differently to different stimuli, or lack of stimuli. For me, like with Debs at the shop, a taper often brings about a procession of phantom injuries, pains, aches. Debs reckons it’s half psychological and half that the body is not used to resting. Exactly. Psychologically, we become dependent on the hormones that running releases, the chemical cocktail that gives us the running bug. Physiologically, we become adapted to training stress in the body to the point where we run through what would otherwise be painful muscle soreness and fatigue in all of our mechanical systems to greater or lesser degrees. Much depends on our individual response to that stress, our training age, our biological age, and other such factors. The training overload that keeps us progressing as runners has to be absorbed in rest, and we as runners are often the worst at recognising when to rest.
Frequently, the taper makes this most apparent. As an enforced and necessary period of rest, the taper allows our bodies to repair and the nutritional and hormonal status of our bodies to be restored. Some studies have shown that maintaining high intensity but low volume training during a week-long taper increases time to fatigue by 22% (see Shepley et al, 1992). Studies on swimmers have shown that muscle power can increase by 17-22% and Vo2Max (ability to use oxygen at high intensity) remains unchanged in a 15-day period of tapering (reducing training volume by two-thirds; see Costill, 1986). It may be the case, therefore, that all that volume of training was not actually doing you all that much good. We’ll have to leave that question for another blog, but, suffice to say, a reduction in training volume before a race is demonstrably a good thing. When a runner starts to get those aches and pains as the body begins to properly repair itself from all the damage inflicted on it during training before the taper, you may start to wonder whether your taper has been long enough!
So, my advice for shorter races is that in the days directly before the race, I would be trying out race pace in short segments of shorter runs, so that my volume is reduced by around two thirds of the previous week’s. Drop down mileage significantly but maintain the frequency of running, and maybe even increase the intensity. Avoid strength training or hill work in the week before the race. Try to get out for a short, easy run (perhaps with some race pace pick-ups) the day before the race, to quell nerves and get the body moving. Maybe time it before a meal, so that you absorb and retain plenty of nutrients to keep you in top condition (glycogen stocked) for the race. You could try this routine before one race and compare it against having two complete rest days before a different race, and see what your body prefers.
Let’s get down to the specifics of race day.
The idea is to prepare the body for a prolonged effort in a race, and in this example we are talking about preparing for a shorter trail race, around 5km. The shorter the race, the faster you are likely to run, so you might want to spend a bit longer on the warm-up so that your body’s working systems are all primed and fired up.
We might do this in sequence by:
- Running/jogging very easy for 10 minutes (at a very comfortable, easy pace) to increase blood flow and raise the heart rate
- Doing some dynamic stretching (things like hamstring roll outs, side steps, carioca, gentle skipping) to activate muscles, tendons and ligaments
- Moving into some more focussed drill work (things like high knees, fast feet), to get ourselves mobile and ready for specific running actions
- Finishing off with some strides at race pace, at a point where the body is fully activated and ready to work hard. These short strides should feel comfortable and light, and prepare you for your race intensity fairly gently
All in, this might take between 20 and 45 minutes. Contrary to natural anxieties, this routine should not tire you out. Instead, it will create blood flow in your working muscles and prepare the body for sustained exertion. It should improve your performance because you should reach the start line with the neuromuscular system that coordinates running firing efficiently.
You would want to arrive at the start line with five minutes or so to go, have a little drink of water or sports drink, and be in an optimal mental and physical zone to enjoy the race ahead.
And after your race, don’t forget to cool down and nourish your body. A gentle 10 to 20 minute jog will help you recover faster, as will some stretching. Warmth applied to key muscles may help (a warm bath or shower, perhaps?). Taking on a mixture of carbohydrate and protein (three parts carbs to one part protein (think peanut butter sandwich or fruit and yoghurt)) also aids in recovery, but simply resume normal eating and your body will get the nutrients it needs along the way. The same goes for rehydration: simply drink to thirst.
I hope that helps!
It’s a very subjective thing, tapering and preparing for races, so let me know, what do you do in the days and hours before a key race?