Getting fit is the easy part. Getting fit at the right time is what makes our sport difficult.

While we spend the majority of the time getting race ready, often times we let all of that training go to waste by messing up the final preparation for the race. It’s probably the most nerve racking part of designing training is often the last few weeks. For the athlete it brings on questioning of whether you are prepared, anxiety over whether all of this work will pay off, and a growing mismatch between how e feel and how we expect to feel.

From a coaches perspective, it should be simple. The large bulk of the work is done and now it’s time to soak in the rewards. However, it’s also the time when as coaches, we probably do the most second-guessing, over-analyzing, and flat out search for perfecting the training before our athlete runs. In fact, there are some coaches who completely eschew the traditional taper, like Scott Simmons, and I can see their reasoning.

In the end, it’s a conundrum of doing enough to feel like we’re doing something, but resting enough so that we are rested and recovered going in. While we won’t go into a full fledged discussion on tapering, I want to examine a few concepts.

When looking at a taper, the three things I’m concerned with are getting the legs feeling right, which I use the concept of “muscle tension” to do, getting the mindset right, and getting the physiology/fatigue right.

In the research world, a traditional taper involves a large reduction in volume and a maintenance or increase in intensity. This generally works well in the research, but often fails to translate in real life practice with higher level athletes.

Why the mismatch?

  1. One reason is psychology.  Runners are hardwired for routine.
  2. The physiology is different for highly trained vs. recreational, and multi-peaks versus one off peaks

Perception- When we taper we often feel bad in workouts.

The first issue is one of perception. Our athletes go into this interesting mode of having a bit more disconnect between how they think they feel and how they actually feel. It’s an interesting phenomenon that occurs because the last few weeks leading up to the
big race, the athletes expect to feel great and want desperately to feel great. As we have talked about before, our perceptions govern reality. So how we expect to feel influences how we actually feel.

For example, if an athlete goes into a workout during a taper, often they expect to feel good and the intervals to feel easy. Normally, when they go into a workout, they expect it to be hard and to hurt a lot, so they get to halfway through their mile repeats and they either are hurting about as expected or maybe even a little less, so the body isn’t surprised. During a taper, the expectations of feeling great means we set ourselves up to get to part way through the workout and our actual feeling is going to be worse than what we expected. So our brain and body freak out and panic. We set ourselves up to fail or feel like we are failing.

To counteract this, we have to do what most good athletes do, expect to go through some sluggish times during a taper and have confidence that race day will be different. I’ve seen some great athletes who simply frame their last 1-2 workouts as “this is going to be harder than it should be.” The other possibility, which some coaches use, is simply not to taper the intensity of the workouts off much so that the athlete still expects it to be hard.

Above all though, distance runners are creatures of habit. We freak out when we drop mileage, drop runs, start training once a day. Running is often our stress relief time too, so when we take that away (and with a tough race coming up…) we start stressing out more. On this front, my suggestion is always to keep the routine there. Even if we’re tapering, don’t just cut runs out, have them do something, even if it’s a 10min shakeout, or some easy strength or technique work.During the times I’ve spent in Europe, I can’t tell you how long athletes drag out their easy runs, drills, strides, etc. just to kill time and keep the routine. It’s almost insane how long you can stretch out a 30min easy run. This is an example of keeping the routine. They’re used to being out there for an hour or two, so they find ways to do it.

The Physiology of the taper:

As described in my book, I use a Fast Twitch vs. Slow twitch model to decide what type of taper/peak a person needs. Either a traditional drop, or a maintenance mode-sustaining peak. This provides the backdrop for who a big taper might work for and who it might fail for.

One recent study sheds some more insight into why a taper might help/hinder an athlete.  In my book, I talked about the phenomenon of muscle fiber overshoot, where the percentage and size of your muscle fibers can change during the taper. For sprinters, there have been several studies that showed that a 2-3 week taper induced an overshoot where more fibers switched from FT-2a to FT-2b fibers during the taper. Which is great for sprinters or power athletes, because you’re trending towards fibers designed for higher
power output.

What a recent study demonstrated is that a similar phenomenon can occur in distance runners. In this study they took a bunch of moderately trained runners (~30min 8k types) and put them through a traditional big volume drop. They measured muscle fiber types, and indicators of hypertrophy and activity changes.

What they found was that the athletes with a large volume drop, had a shift towards activity that would suggest Fast Twitch-A fiber hypertrophy (growth). For this group it resulted in small performance gains for some. Essentially what occurred is the body “overreacted” to the drop in volume, and thought that now the demands needed are for more power/speed. It’s an effect of the fatigue and chronic volume, going away.

The studies results are as follows:

RES ULTS: In MHC IIa fibers, exercise increased Fn14 (P<0.05) and decreased Myostatin (P<0.05) expression post-taper while only Myostatin decreased (P<0.05) pre-taper. In contrast, genes of interest in MHC I fibers remained relatively static posttaper with only an increase in Hsp72 (P<0.05). Exercise decreased Myostatin (P<0.05) and increased MRF4 (P<0.05) pre-taper.

CONCLUSION: The post-taper run increase in Fn14 (strongly correlated to hypertrophy) coupled with favorable mRNA expression of potent negative muscle mass regulator Myostatin provides an initial molecular basis for taper-induced MHC IIa growth in these runners. Characterizing this unique model of exaggerated fast fiber hypertrophy provides new insight into fiber type-specific size regulation with training and taper.

But would the same effect in performance occur in higher level athletes?

That’s the question that we don’t know, but my guess is the answer is not necessarily. Instead, it explains why certain athletes might get a big boost in a big taper. Take your FT 800m runner for example who might benefit from more speed and power production. Or for your intermittent sport that requires both speed and endurance (soccer for example), it might help counteract those insecurities of most soccer trainers who fear doing any
endurance work for fiber changes. Maybe, this explains that, they’ll be okay (and perhaps better) if they just taper off the volume once they get through “conditioning.”

On the other hand, it might explain why your pure marathoner might feel okay during the taper, but crashes and burns at the end as they run out of gas. Perhaps it’s because of this slight shift in fiber use and strength.

So what?

What should your taper/peak be?

Once again, the answer is, much to the chagrin of some people: It depends…

Find what type of athlete you are and remember what event you are training for. Do you need the psychology of the routine? Do you need more speed/power? Are you more FT or ST orientated? What event are you tapering for?

These questions and more will hopefully help you solve the conundrum of tapering. There’s no clear cut answer, but the more data from studies such as this one combined with practical experience, allows us to create a better model to “guess” what taper works best for each athlete. So add this knowledge to your arsenal if you are looking to put together your next peak or taper.

It’s not an easy one to solve, but understanding the concepts behind what occurs when we taper, should help you find the right taper for you and your athletes.


Molecular Insight into Fast-Twitch Muscle Fiber Remodeling with Taper

Kevin Murach, Ulrika Raue, Brittany Wilkerson, Kiril Minchev, Bozena Jemiolo, James Bagley, Nicholas Luden, Scott Trappe,

Get My New Guide on: The Science of Creating Workouts


    1. Chuck Wall on July 11, 2014 at 1:48 pm

      "Getting fit is the easy part."

      Until you have a chronic injury, and then it's not.

    2. Hugo Sanchez on August 16, 2015 at 2:05 pm

      Really enjoyed reading this one, I'm a ~27 8k runner, and going into my third collegiate year I've always found the tapering to be the most difficult part for me even in High school. Hopefully this year is different.

    3. […] Steve Magness has some thoughts on this. I always like Magness’s writings because he does such a good job of balancing the science of […]

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