Is Pre-Race Tapering Overrated? Or Is This Question Just Click Bait?

Recently one of my custom training plan clients emailed me with a question. He was three weeks out from the marathon he’d hired me to prepare him for and was somewhat alarmed to see that I had scheduled a 20-mile run featuring 16 miles at his goal marathon pace at the end of the current week. His question was, in essence: Is two weeks enough time to recover from such a big workout?

In reply, I told my client that if he couldn’t recover from such a big workout in less than two weeks, he had greater problems than a coach who doesn’t know how to plan a proper pre-race taper! A cheeky answer, I know, but I receive versions of this same question so often that my patience is wearing thin. That’s why I’m writing this article, in which I hope to dispel the widely held notion that it’s necessary to cut way back on training for a long time before an important race.

As chance would have it, the email exchange I just described happened around the same time a relevant new study appeared in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine in Sports. Authored by Bent Rønnestad of Inland Norway University and Olav Vikmoen of the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment, the study looked at the effects of two different tapering protocols on “physiological and psychological variables of endurance performance” in elite cyclists. 

Nine athletes completed a traditional 11-day taper that maintained the normal frequency of high-intensity interval training and reduced overall training volume, while eight others did six days of stepped-up “overload training” followed by a compressed five-day taper. Testing was conducted at three points: immediately before the 11-day interventions, again on Day 7, and once more on Day 11. Cyclists in the compressed taper group exhibited significantly greater improvements in peak oxygen consumption (4 percent vs. 0.8 percent) and one-minute peak power output (5 percent vs. 0.9) and a slightly greater improvement in power output at lactate threshold intensity. In short, the compressed taper worked better than the traditional one.

This study was actually a follow-up to a small pilot study done two years before by a research team that included the same duo plus two other scientists. And when I say “small” I mean small: It was an individual case study involving an elite male cross-country mountain biker. During a two-week interval between World Cup races, this athlete underwent seven days of overload training followed by a five-day taper. Both objective and subjective measurements were taken throughout. As expected, the cyclist felt like crap and exhibited compromised physiology on Day 1 of tapering, but by Day 4 he reported feeling good and his numbers were well above baseline. And two days after that he felt like Superman.

This compressed tapering protocol was developed specifically for use by endurance athletes like mountain bike racers on the World Cup circuit with tight competition schedules. It’s simply impractical for these athletes to follow a traditional protocol, and these two studies show they can have their cake and eat it too—that is, work hard enough to stay fit and recover sufficiently to race on peak form—by stacking short periods of overload training with compressed tapers. But what the same experiments also indicate, more broadly, is that it just doesn’t take very long to recover from peak training loads.

Real-world evidence supports these findings. While most elite endurance athletes practice some version of the traditional tapering protocol, others have found success with a compressed taper. Triathlon legend Dave Scott, for example, didn’t lighten up his training until three days before the Ironman World Championship, and that didn’t stop him from winning it six times in the 1980s!

When I try to make the case for short tapers with individual athletes like the custom training plan client who emailed me about his big marathon-pace run, I often ask them the following question: “How do you typically feel and perform when you’re in a period of heavy training and you do a challenging workout that is preceded by two very light days?” The answer is always the same: They tend to feel good and perform well. So, then, I point out (springing the trap), if two easy days during a period of heavy training usually suffice to make you feel and perform well in a hard workout, how much more time do you really need to taper down for a race?

To be clear, I’m not trying to argue for a two-day taper before an event such as a marathon or an Ironman triathlon. My point, simply, is that the optimal pre-race taper is not as long as many athletes seem to think. So, if you ever hire me to create a custom training plan for you and the last big workouts seem dangerously close to race day, keep those worries to yourself and do as I tell you. You won’t regret it!