Jason Warick puts his feet up during the taper.

Everything you need to know about the taper

The Saskatchewan Marathon is less than two weeks away, which means most participants have started tapering.

The taper is an important — but often misunderstood — part of race preparation. This week, Saskatchewan marathon record holder Jason Warick breaks down what the taper is and why it may be making you anxious.

Brainsport Times: What is the taper?

Jason Warick: Everyone defines it differently and different things work for different people, but there are some universal principles. A taper is simply gradually winding down the amount of training you’re doing so your body can absorb it and rest and be at 100 per cent on race day.

It’s almost like filling your gas tank gradually. The training is like you’re driving around and then, when you’re tapering or fueling or doing all those healthy things, you’re filling up your tank again. When you step to the start line, if your tank’s only at 90 per cent full, you may find that you’re not performing at your best.

So that’s it: it’s basically just resting all the systems, mind and body, so you can be 100-per-cent ready on race day.

BT: Is this just for marathons or should people taper for shorter races as well?

JW: It’s not as dramatic, but it’s definitely necessary. If you were running the 100 meters at a track meet, you wouldn’t do a flat-out workout the day before because then you wouldn’t be ready to perform your best the next day. The day before any major athletic competition, you wouldn’t exhaust yourself, you would want to be rested and prepared for it. And so the taper is universal — it’s just a matter of degree.

There are individual differences and different taper periods for different distances, but — in general — how long is the taper?

It’s up to you, but there are ballpark ideas. For example, if you’re racing an 800- or 1500-metre, you may continue your normal high-intensity training until just three or four days before the meet. If you’re doing a marathon, that’s generally in the two-to-three week zone. For the 10k maybe it’s a week to 10 days that you’re backing off.

BT: What does backing off mean? Does that involve cutting volume or intensity or both?

JW: In general, it means backing off the volume. I’m a big believer in high quality at every phase of the training. When you taper, the goal is to rest gradually — but to maintain your sharpness. And so the intensity and the number of intense workouts and the nature of them doesn’t change that much. But what will change is the volume.

If you’re used to doing 50km a week, your taper might go 40, 30, 20km for the three weeks leading up to the race in total weekly kilometres. But you may keep those two or three interval workouts in there. You may still keep your long runs in there, they will just get shorter. If you’re used to doing a three-hour run, maybe in those three weeks before the race you go to 2:20 and then you have a 1:40 and then the week before the race you do just 60 minutes.

It can be scaled down gradually. It’s not so dramatic that you’re going from 100 per cent to nothing. We’re not resting for three weeks. There definitely is a gradual ramping down that you want. Not too gradual, not too steep.

BT: Should people back off strength and cross training as well?

JW: Definitely. There’s a taper of all kinds. The principle of specificity dictates that the closer you get to a race, the more specific your training should be. So as you get into those final few weeks, the strength training or cross training should all be ramped down quite a bit as well.

I’m a big believer in cross training, strength work, all of those things, during the training periods. But during the taper, in at least the last 10 days before a marathon, strength work is pretty much reduced to zero because every calorie you burn, every step that you take, needs to be geared toward making you faster in the race. All of the cross training and all of those other things, those aren’t specific to improving your marathon performance at that moment. They’re very good for your general training and health, but once you’re at this point, you’re almost ready to race. It’s time to get really specific and just focus on just running.

BT: In addition to scaling back volume and cross training, what else should people be thinking about during the taper?

JW: This is the time to put all the things in place that you’re going to need to think about heading into the race. All of the little details: Do you have your nutrition plan? Are you getting enough calories, enough liquids, before your workouts and during your long runs? Hopefully you’ve worked all that out, but if you haven’t, this is the last chance to tinker with that. Do you have the shoes that you’re going to wear? Nobody should be buying shoes at the race expo the night before that they’re going to race a marathon in. Do you know how you’re going to get to the start line in the morning?

All of those things are part of the process. If you get those in place, as you head into the taper, then all of the stresses that could come up, they won’t come up. Those are all part of getting ready for the race.

BT: What are some of the repercussions of tapering too much or too early?

JW: In my experience, it’s very rare that people taper too much. I’ve seen a lot of people not taper enough. But that said, tapering too much will make you feel dull and, if you don’t do anything for three weeks before the gun goes off, you will de-train and lose a little bit of sharpness and a little bit of fitness. It’s not the end of the world. Most people are fine with missing a little bit, but you still have to do something. If you taper too sharply with no quality, then you’ll be in trouble.

What some people do is eliminate all the quality. They think, “Oh, I’m tapering, I’ll just do easy jogging,” but they keep high volume. That does nothing. It doesn’t let you rest, but it’s poor quality so it doesn’t help you get fast if running a good time is your goal. And so keep that quality in there, but gradually taper off on the volume.

BT: For those people that don’t taper enough, how does that affect them on race day?

JW: You’re tired, you haven’t topped up your fuel stores. If you continue to do hard workouts, you haven’t even let your muscles or your nervous system repair.

The way we improve in training is we train and that breaks down all our systems. When we rest or take easy days, we allow the body to build up to a higher level of preparedness for the next time we attack it with a hard workout. So if you’re not allowing yourself enough time to regenerate, you’re not going to be at your strongest. You need the taper. It’s really important.

BT: If the taper is individual, how do you figure out what will work best for you?

JW: It’s a bit of a guess. There’s this general framework. If you’re a marathon runner who’s running almost every day, doing a long run every weekend or almost every weekend, doing some interval training and you have some experience already, in general it’s this two-to-three week window.

You’ll want to play around with things and experiment a little bit in training. But you can’t do a three-week experiment of tapering when you’re in your training phase because then you are not training at a hard enough level. So you can do mini tapers. For example, do a 10km time trial or enter a shorter race in the weeks or months leading up to your big race and then feel what it’s like to even do a mini version of that for three or four days, see how it feels even just mentally.

BT: Tell me more about the mental aspect of the taper.

JW: If you’re doing the taper right, you will feel all of these potentially seemingly negative things. You will feel insecure, you will feel anxious, you will feel lazy, you will feel maybe even sluggish or bloated. That’s all part of the adaptation that the body is making.

The first thing to tell yourself is that it’s good. Just like when you’re nervous before a race, it’s good; it means that you care about it and that you’re doing something you enjoy.

With the taper, it’s your body building itself back up. We will grow insecure and we will feel sluggish and all of these things because we’re marathon trainers. Part of our identity is working hard. Part of our validation and our endorphins come from working really hard and training as hard as we’re able to. And so when we’re not doing that, we feel like we’re not trying hard enough. You may feel like you’re getting unfit, out of shape or whatever. It’s because you’re not getting that daily validation of sweating and being completely out of breath.

But it doesn’t matter. If performance is the goal, you have to just tell yourself: “This is how it’s supposed to feel.”

Some people have wonderful, happy times during a taper. They don’t stress about it. They watch movies, they spend more time with their friends and family and it’s a really fun period. And others just stress about not working out as hard.

So just try and figure out a way to understand that’s how you might feel and that it’s natural and it’s going to help you perform better.

BT: How did you deal with tapering and what advice do you have for others?

JW: I would be irrational and nervous and skittish at times. And then, as I got a little more experience, I learned how to calm down. I realized, “Oh, I’m feeling that again. Well, the last race went really well so obviously I was doing something right. I felt like I had great energy during the race even though I felt like I was nervous during the taper, that I was getting out of shape or wasn’t doing enough.”

I resisted that temptation to overdo it. And there’s nothing like experience to give you confidence that something is working right. Doing it yourself once will help you for the next time.

The next best thing is just to talk to others, or to look at the science — and the science is very clear on this. But there’s no replacement for you just going through it and feeling it because, no matter how rational the arguments of the science are or what a coach tells you, once you do it yourself then you start to realize why this is necessary.

This interview has been edited and condensed.