Ta-per-ing. vb. 1. To become progressively smaller toward one end. 2. To diminish gradually. ~vt: to cause to taper. On a warm summer day in 1984, Alberto Salazar, one of America’s most revered distance runners, stood at the starting line the Olympic Marathon. Three weeks prior the race, succumbing to the pressures to win, he tried to “catch up” with his training, rather than rest. When the gun went off and the runners assumed an arduous pace, his dream of capturing an Olympic medal quickly faded away. In his words, he had “the horrible experience of watching the leaders pull away…in the first mile and knowing there was nothing I could do about it”.
On that same summer day, another runner, unheralded and running under the radar, stood at the same starting line. But this runner was unable to run for 10 days prior to the race due to a car accident. That runner was Carlos Lopes of Portugal, age 37. He went on to win the marathon and take home the Olympic gold medal that day, and set a Olympic Record in the process. According to Salazar, its “better to taper a little too strongly, than not enough”.
Have you ever stood at the starting line after months of training, wondering if you’ve rested enough? Too much? If so then you are, indeed, an endurance runner. Rest assured, there is no such thing as the perfect taper. But perfection isn’t on the menu in our sport. But if you’re looking for the perfect recipe here, don’t lose your appetite.
There are some basic guidelines that should be heeded when tapering. The first, like Salazar suggested, is to go into a race a little too tapered, rather than not enough. Pete Pfitzinger, author of Advanced Marathoning who beat Salazar in the Olympic Marathon in 1984, suggests starting your taper three weeks prior to race day, and cutting back your total mileage by 20% to 25% in the first week; 40% in the second week and 60% the week of your race. If you are doing speed work, progressively easing back on the intensity during your taper is recommended. Also be aware that too much time off though can leave your legs feeling a little flat on race day, so don’t turn into a couch potato for three weeks. Taking several full days off during the week of race day is advised.
There is one other thing to remember during your taper, especially for us older runners. Watch your calories! It’s pretty simple, but when you start ramping down the miles you need to remember that your body doesn’t need as many calories. And the last thing you need is to put on pounds before your race! Take this time to cut back and even lose weight.