Then there are the phantom ailments that crop up only during taper. There's nothing like not running to make me realize (or imagine) how much could be wrong with me. I've got a weird click in my Achilles, my hammies are tight and my knee feels crunchy--and that's just from taking out the recyclables. Every taper I have a run of less than 5 miles where I get so winded I have to walk. Talk about a buzz kill! ~ Glen Freyer, Taper from Hell
Most runners would avoid the taper period if they could: a decrease in running is possibly the most uncomfortable situation for a runner. Some runners go on an emotional roller-costar, up and down, rivaling the tantrum of a two year old. We do a taper because we know that training hard right until race day will not make us run faster, we need a period of recovery to reach our optimum performance on race day. But, we struggle with change, particularly a decrease in the training habits we've worked so hard to perfect. Though recovering from training is important, there are some negative psychological and neurological effects that we experience when training decreases. Training for peak performance should individually balance recovery from training while maintaining raceability (and sanity). Some of the dreaded insanity of a taper period is created by our misconceptions about tapering, here are some:
Feeling 'bad' is actually a good sign. During the taper period, I have a fleeting, sometimes sever, lethargic feeling and if I were to self-diagnose my symptoms online, I would probably discover that I have 20 different and rare diseases! I obviously don't have "meningococcemia" or any other of the 204 medical reasons for fatigue! But these strange sensations in my body result in questioning my physical ability to race, and rationally I want to test myself in training. To deal with these mixed physical and emotional discomforts, I still include race effort sessions in the weeks prior to my race to build my confidence. These uncomfortable feelings are a normal part of recovery, you can expect to feel fatigued, and if you don't feel 'bad' during this period, it is likely that you are not recovering appropriately.
Taper is not complete rest before you race, but a focus on rest during your training. I still train each and every day two to three weeks before a big race, and still include race effort sessions, however I include more rest. The definition of a taper is a reduction in your training over a period of time before your race, and the practice of it is a reduction in training volume (how much) and frequency (how often), not necessarily training intensity (how hard). During my taper period, I still do 1-3 high intensity or race effort sessions per week but increase the rest between intervals (i.e.: from 2 minutes rest to 5 minutes between repeats) and/or decrease the number of intervals (i.e.: from 12 x 5 min repeats to 10 x 5 min repeats) as I get closer to my race day. During this period, I am also decreasing the number of weekly training sessions (from 12 to 5-7) and the distance/duration of my weekly long run. In other words, I continue with planned high intensity sessions but my total hours training decreases on average 40-60%. Thus, a taper is a change in training focus, from distance to fine tuning your raceability.
A proper taper is not only done the week before a race. Tapering should be a complete training approach, and successful coaches like Arthur Lydiard and Joe Friel discuss the taper period as 'peaking', 'fine tuning', and 'staying sharp', more accurate descriptions of the changes in training focus for peak performance. Though a taper period is critical, there is no conclusive scientific evidence that narrows down how long a taper should be, but a rule of thumb does exist. First, you only taper for goal races (usually 2-3 per year) and not every race (most runners/triathletes race ~10 times per year). If you have a solid training background (an experienced runner, consistent training) you may need a long taper period (2-3 weeks), but if you are a new runner or had periods of inconsistent training, you may need less taper (1 week). The theory behind a taper is that you need time to fully recover from hard training, so the prior training experience matters. Beginners may lose fitness if the taper is too long, while experienced athletes will not quickly lose fitness but need a longer period to recover for peak performance. Unfortunately, you will not know if the taper is effective until you race.
Learn from experience, make mistakes. Finding where you fit is not easy, especially if you are self-coached, but there are those who have learned from their past experiences (read this wonderful blog post on tapering). I purposely did not taper my training volume, frequency or intensity for my race in January because I had not been consistently training - our wedding, honeymoon and Christmas with family took priority over training. In the past, I have taken both long and short tapers, but these were ineffective because I lost confidence during this period. Subsequently, I have worked on building mental training skills and learning how to train effectively. Now I take a big picture approach to my training. I race again on April 13th, and I have done a 3 week taper where I reduced volume and frequency from 20 hours per week to 12 hours, and to 6 hours the week of my race (see the table above for a visual representation of my taper approach). I will let you know if this approach was effective next week (fingers crossed)!
A taper period does not mean you stop training, but it does mean you focus on rest and don't do more training than you need to in the week(s) leading up to a goal race. Likewise, your options for training during a taper are not as restrictive as you think, you can still include high intensity race efforts and continue running everyday to fine tune your performance. A taper should not be an agonizing process, but a well planned change in training focus.