We are now only three weeks from race day, and it’s time to start winding it down, at least in terms of volume! This is the part of the training programme where you’ll have to test your ‘faith’ in the process!
If you’ve had a good few months, and been disciplined and diligent, done the necessary mileage, then you can enter these last few weeks with a perfect mindset that allows you to sharpen up. If you’ve had a patchy build-up, for reasons like injury, illness, work stress, then it’s a little trickier, but we’ll address that later. Let’s first talk about the general concept of the taper period.
The idea behind the taper is that all the training you’ve done has challenged your body and physiology to adapt, to make you fitter, stronger, a better runner. But the key element that helps to ‘unlock’ that adaptation is recovery – you need to give the physiological systems a reprieve in order to allow full adaptation. And that’s what the taper is doing.
You’ll reduce volume, so have less time on your feet, but in turn will either slightly increase the intensity or keep it the same, so that you’re still challenging yourself to run the necessary pace, but giving yourself the necessary opportunity to do so.
If it goes to plan, you should start to feel a “lightness” in your step, that your easy runs are suddenly easier than usual, that you have some bounce, that you’re straining at the leash. At this point, it’s really critical that you don’t give in to this feeling of wanting to run harder, because then you’ll just replace one stress (long runs, and volume) with another (hard runs and intensity). But the point is, as you drop the load, your body should thank you by feeling sharper, livelier, readier to race.
The challenge is getting it just right – if you taper too much, or for too long, then you can undo your fitness gains, because you’ll be training less. Ideally, if you’ve trained well, then your base is solid enough that you should be able to afford about three weeks – one week to bring volume down, one week to nudge intensity up, and then a final week to really get sharp.
On the other, if your training hasn’t quite gone to plan, and you feel a little underdone, then you should probably taper for two weeks, and rather make that third week out from race day a little more challenging. That’s up to you, but irrespective, I’d advise that your last two weeks prioritize intensity and running at race pace or faster, and not volume.
The big temptation is to test yourself one last time, to do one final 16km “rehearsal” run for the half, or a 30km practice for the Ultra. Try to avoid that, and rather carry confidence and fresh legs into race day, even if it means a bit more doubts, rather than fatigue.