How to Begin Tapering Prior to an Endurance Competition

Sample Tapering Schedule for Competition

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For endurance athletes, "tapering" refers to a decrease in training volume (amount) leading up to competitions. In the past, most coaches had athletes reduce both the volume and intensity (effort) of training prior to competition, but all that changed when a group of researchers at McMaster University in Canada conducted a ground-breaking study on the effects of various tapering strategies.

The results of this work and more that followed showed dramatic endurance benefits in runners who drastically cut their training volume but added high-intensity interval training sessions in the week prior to competition.

Most tapering strategies today use this research as a foundation, but there are a variety of methods and schedules available for every athlete and every competition. To simplify your pre-race taper, use the following as a guideline, and modify your plan to fit your needs.

How to Taper

The length of your taper depends upon your current level of fitness and experience, but a good rule of thumb is the one-hour rule. This means that if your event will last an hour or less, use a one-week taper. If your event is going to last more than an hour, your taper may extend to a full two weeks prior to the event.

Guidelines for a One-Week Taper

If your race or competition will last an hour or less, use the following sample tapering plan:

  • Begin your taper one week prior to race-day.
  • After your hard training day, plan an easy day.
  • Decrease your training volume (mileage) by 50%.
  • Decrease your frequency of training (number of workout sessions) by 20% or take an extra day off.
  • During the one hard workout of this final week, increase your training intensity to 16 or 17 on the rating of perceived exertion scale. This is about 90 percent of maximal effort and should include interval training sessions.

It's important to pay attention to your body during the week before a competition. If you are fatigued or feel any aches or twinges of pain, it's best to stop your training and recover. It's always better to stop your workouts for a week than to push through the pain and suffer on race-day. Stop running completely or limit your running to easy runs, skip and quality work.

Guidelines for a Two-Week Taper

If your race or competition will last an hour or more, start reducing your training volume (mileage) by 50 to 70 percent two weeks before race-day. Stagger the reduction of mileage. For example, 70% in week 1 of taper, and 50% on Week 2.

This week you will maintain your intensity of training, but cut your volume, get more rest, hydrate and eat well and preparing mentally for the event. This is also a good week for dealing with any gear, clothing or equipment issues and makes sure you don't have any last-minute mechanical troubles or 'wardrobe malfunctions.'

With one week to go, you will begin to follow the one-week tapering strategy outlined above.

Research on Tapering

The most well-known study of tapering in runners was conducted by Duncan MacDougall at McMaster University. This study compared three different one-week tapering strategies in healthy runners who ran about 50 miles a week. The three tapering strategies included the following:

  1. A rest-only taper (ROT) group. This group did no running for the week.
  2. A low-intensity moderate-volume taper (LIT) group. This group reduced their weekly mileage to 18 miles at a relaxed pace and rested completely the last day.
  3. A high-intensity low-volume taper group (HIT). This group decreasing overall mileage to 6 miles for the week but increased their exercise intensity. The specific routine included:
  • Day one: run 5 x 500 high-intensity intervals
  • Day two: Run 4 x 500 high-intensity intervals
  • Day three: Run 3 x 500 high-intensity intervals
  • Day four: Run 2 x 500 high-intensity intervals
  • Day five: Run 1 x 500 high-intensity interval.
  • Day six: Rest day

If a runner is going to runner try one of these approaches, they should do 2 quality workout days with a day of rest or easy running in between to see how it goes. Then try adding a third in the the next training cycle. This approach is especially for older runners.

Study Results

The results of the three tapering strategies were remarkable. The high-intensity low-volume taper group's endurance improved 22 percent. The low-intensity moderate-volume taper (LIT) group improved 6 percent, and the rest group showed no change.

The results of this study paved the way for a new approach to tapering for competition. Although athletes and coaches are still seeking the "perfect" tapering strategy, most agree that a good taper strategy includes a reduction in training volume combined with high-intensity interval training sessions in the week leading up to the competition.

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By Elizabeth Quinn, MS
Elizabeth Quinn is an exercise physiologist, sports medicine writer, and fitness consultant for corporate wellness and rehabilitation clinics.