Advice for athletes when tapering for major events.

Major races ahead

As we get to the sharp end of another cross-country season, big races come up thick and fast. In the local league fixtures, we may be finishing in splendid isolation or battling with a relatively small number of opponents. In contrast, in regional and national championships athletes can be coming in at a rate of 2 or 3 per second, maybe more – we’ve seen this to a certain extent already this season in the southern regional intercounty event last December, and it’s about to get worse. This applies just as much to the senior races as it does to the shorter age group events – at last year’s senior men's “national” for example, two of our athletes, along with a few others, finished inches apart after 12 km of tough all-out cross country racing. So when a major event is coming up where every second really does count, we want to make sure that we are as ready as we can be to do our best.

What not to do

With a big championship race next weekend, many inexperienced athletes think that they need to bash in more hard training to give that extra edge. Even with those who should know better, I’ve seen examples of Thursday sessions where people hit the track for a load of fast 200s to “sharpen up for Saturday”. Don’t. Anything you do in the last week before the race is not going to magically give a massive improvement. In fact, things could go completely in the opposite direction, where you leave your best form on the training track and are off the boil or just plain worn out by the time you line up. What’s more, if Thursday is the first time you’ve done any fast 200s since the previous track season, there is a serious risk of injury that might stop you getting to the start line at all.

So what do we do??

The first thing is to plan well ahead. I’m using the UK cross country scene as an example here, but you can apply the same principles to any other events. We start in October, building a strong base through until the end of the year. This doesn’t mean you can’t compete over this period, few of us can train solidly for 3 months without a race or two to spice things up. However, many battle-hardened runners will “train through” many of these races to make sure that a really good base of work has gone in. After that, we can start carefully bringing in some faster, more race-specific work in the weeks going into the championships that start at the end of January. If you read stuff from the USA you may see race-specific sessions described as “callousing” and this isn’t a bad description – hardening and sharpening our systems ready for what’s to come. We might not be running as many miles each week as we were but this is where some seriously tough training gets done, taking account, of course, of the hard-easy principle that I’ve written about elsewhere.

What’s next?

So the first of the big race of the season is only a week or two away and a huge amount of training should be behind you - if it isn’t it’s too late now. To use another Americanism, “the hay is in the barn” – in other words, much of the hard work has been done, now to make use of the fruits of your labours. Time to focus on racing and this means bringing in a process known as “tapering”, which is when we cut back on training so that we are really fresh and rested (both physically and mentally) for the big day.

For many of us, major races are spread out over several weeks from late January until mid-March. The programme is even more complicated for those in full-time education. We cannot survive on reduced training rations throughout that time and some careful planning is needed so that we can fit in some short blocks of work to keep us sharp and in condition whilst also allowing time for physical and mental recovery between races. With people having their own individual race programmes and priorities it’s impossible to be prescriptive over this period, but what we can do is look at how a taper might work for a single event. As ever, these are my thoughts on the subject, others may take a different view.

The tapering process

For most distance events our last seriously tough session might take place about a week before race day. Marathons are a bit more complex and I’m not going into that topic here.

The first and most important thing to say is that tapering is a very individual matter. Some people would like to be in a state of taper permanently while others think it’s sufficient to go to bed 10 mins earlier the night before the race. Most of us fall somewhere between these two extremes.

I know it worked for Roger Bannister back in 1954 but it’s a mistake I think to rest up completely for several days prior to the race. We have conditioned ourselves to frequent training over several months and we just don’t feel right sitting about. And there is the temptation to replace training time with eating time, with fairly obvious consequences.

What we can do is to keep to our customary number of sessions but to cut back on volume (the number of miles we run) and/or intensity (how hard we are doing them). Low-intensity steady running is absolutely invaluable here because it enables our normal training, eating and sleeping patterns to be maintained while putting freshness back into the system. (There is a definition of what constitutes low intensity steady running in a separate website article.) We might add in some slightly faster work on say Tuesday before a Saturday race, but whatever the session we should finish with that “I’m well on top of this“ feeling. Self-control is critical – after a few relatively easy days it’s all too tempting to head out feeling decidedly frisky and get carried away, especially if you train in a group. The result is that you’ve done your best run of the week on Wednesday and you’re past it by Saturday.

Two days to go and hopefully, most people don’t now need convincing to take things easy and gather their resources. Whatever the session, my usual criterion is to get to the end and think “I could do that whole lot again right now with no problem at all – but I won’t”.

The day before and for many this would be a complete rest from running. Those who habitually run 7 days per week may want to get out for a loosener, but it’s no more than a very gentle trot. In fact, this isn’t a bad idea if this is the day when you’ve had a long train, plane or road trip to get to the race venue.

On race day itself don’t worry if you don’t get up feeling full of vim and vigour after all this easing down. The “I really don’t fancy this” feeling is very common and it’s just your system saving everything for when it matters.

And after the race …

Whatever the result, if you’ve given your all in a big, tough cross country race you are going to be feeling the effects for a day or two afterwards, maybe even longer. There is no rush to get back into hard training, easy recovery running is what’s needed now. But do think back, not just over the race itself but on the lead-in to it – was the training I did in the week or so beforehand about right for me?? Or should I make some changes next time?? And whether “next time” is a week away or a year away, don’t trust to memory, get a quick note down in that training diary.