Make sure you arrive at the start feeling fresh, sharp and ready to race

Months of hard training, strict eating and meticulous preparation can all be undone in the final week before an A-race without a proper taper.

We often invest 3 to 6 months of dedicated training to achieve a new personal best on race day, but many of us throw that all away by neglecting to taper down their training volume in the lead up to race day.

While the high volume training blocks and the high-intensity speed sessions are necessary to arrive at the start line in peak condition, an adequate taper is what ensures you are able to convert the training into an optimal race-day performance by allowing important adaptations to occur.

The training loads are used to stimulate a breakdown in your various physiological systems – the muscular, endocrine, cardiovascular and cardiorespiratory systems. Rest and recovery should then be sufficient to allow the body to respond by rebuilding itself to be stronger and more resistant to fatigue than before.

Without sufficient time to allow all that training to ‘sink in’ you’ll likely start the race with heavy legs and residual fatigue, which often results in sub-optimal performance. More importantly, a proper taper strategy will ensure your fitness and conditioning peak at the right time for the big race.

Step 1: Manipulate volume & intensity

Start to lower your training volume 2-3 weeks before a big race and following your hardest training block, but don’t take this as an opportunity to take time off. As you reduce your milage, incrementally increase the intensity of your speed or tempo sessions. This will help you to ‘flush out’ fatigue without losing your sharpness.

Step 2: Take active rest days

If you still feel sluggish during the taper and don’t like you’re sharpening up, take a rest day during the week before your race. Just don’t spend it laying around on the couch. Go for a walk and stay relatively active, perhaps with some light stretching, yoga or mobility work and perhaps a massage – but nothing new, though. Only include activities that have formed part of your build up.

Step 3: Watch your weight

Continue to eat normally, but resist the urge to overindulge. Remember, your total energy expenditure has been decreased and your body is in recovery mode, so you may feel hungrier than usual. The worst thing you can do is overeat and add on weight as this will reduce your efficiency.

If you feel like you need more energy, play around with your macronutrient ratios to include slightly more carbs, but stick to natural sources from whole, natural foods. Avoid processed foods and sugar. Again, don’t try anything new, rather stick to what your body is used to.

It is advisable to track your metrics, particularly your weight to make informed decisions about your diet as you approach race day.

Step 4: Don’t over-taper

The perfect taper is about finding the balance between training to maintain your conditioning and resting sufficiently to derive the full benefit from your previous training blocks. Rest too much or fail to stimulate your muscles and nervous system sufficiently can result in a loss of speed and sharpness. If the body become de-conditioned it will be unable to reach and sustain levels of peak performance during the race. You may also feel sluggish or tired at the start of the race.

Step 5: Take notes

While every athlete will benefit from a taper, not everyone benefits from the same type of taper. Factors such as previous training loads, your training history, your genes and our response to certain foods, among other factors, will dictate how you respond. So if you have multiple races planned for the year it is wise to take notes about how and what works and what doesn’t. This will help you to refine your approach at your next taper and eventually construct the perfect plan for your individual needs.