‘Tapering’ is one of those terms that you hear over and over, but do you really fully understand what it means or how to properly implement one in your training program?
In the context of sports, tapering refers to the practice of reducing exercise in the days just before an important competition. Tapering differs from event to event. In simplest terms, what you are trying to do when you taper is recover from all of your hard training, so that you are well rested and ready to put the training to the test. When you have trained and “peaked” properly, you should experience increased power, reduced lactic acid buildup and fatigue, increased blood volume, enhanced work capacity, increased fuel storage, and renewed interest in participating in your event (if at any point you were verging on overtraining). You should feel like you have plenty of “pop” or “spring” in your muscles, and you should also feel a bit antsy, as though you cannot wait to get going again.
The most common mistake people make leading up to their event is to think that “more is better” and to train hard right up until the day before the day of the race or climb. As difficult as it is to remember, fitness actually improves with rest, and you want to be well rested to perform optimally.
As a general rule of thumb, longer endurance events are generally preceded by longer tapering periods. Typically, tapering for relatively short endurance events takes as little as a week or less, but tapering for an event like the marathon takes at least two or four weeks. How long you taper will depend on how fit you are going into it, and what you are peaking for. If you have reached a high level of fitness, you probably will need a longer taper than someone in poorer condition who may want to continue training at reduced intensity to within a few days of the event.
If you are in the middle of a racing season with several “big events” planned, you may even choose to embark on a modified program of maintenance during the week (or month, or season, as the case may be), with mini-peaks and mini-tapers of 2-4 days before each race or event.