How to taper for your race and avoid key mistakes

A race day isn’t just about a single performance day.

Race day is a day that we hope reflects the days, weeks, months and maybe even years of hard work and dedication that we put into preparing for this unique event. That’s usually where the nerves start. When you’ve put so much mental and physical time and energy into making sure that one day is absolutely perfect, you don’t want to make a mistake that throws everything off balance.

One of the biggest and most common mistakes an athlete can make when leading up to an event is to continue training too hard in the last few days before the race and start the race already in a state of exhaustion. To avoid starting line fatigue, an athlete should taper before their focus competition.

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In tapering, fitness and fatigue intersect in a way that leads to optimal performance.

Fitness comes from training really hard and building a training foundation that will benefit our event. In general, the more fit we are, the better we will do at an event. However, when we train hard to build fitness, we also accumulate fatigue.

If you’ve been training really hard but are completely exhausted, you won’t be able to reach your full potential. To minimize fatigue before a race, we need to scale back our training so we can recover and go into the race fresh and not tired. That is, if we rest too long we lose fitness, but if we don’t rest enough, we get tired.

Also read: Tips on avoiding burnout when training on the bike

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Finding the perfect balance of rest and fitness is where we find excellence. We work to find that perfect balance by rejuvenating.

Tapering is the strategy we use to maintain fitness while recovering and minimize fatigue for optimal performance. Every event is different and every athlete is different, so every taper should be different too. It may take a few tries to find the perfect makeover that works for you. Here are some concepts to help you plan your perfect makeover.

duration: Most tapers start 4-28 days after your main event (with 1-2 weeks being the usual duration). This time frame has been shown to allow an athlete to effectively reduce fatigue over time without having to stop training entirely.

intensity: A crucial element of all tapers is maintaining the intensity in your training routine. As volume decreases, intensity should remain in your training plan to maintain race-specific fitness. Continue doing intervals at the same wattage or heart rate as you normally would, but reduce the duration of the intervals, the number of sets completed, and add more rests in between.

volume: During your tapering, reduce your exercise volume to 60-90 percent of your normal exercise volume. Don’t make the mistake of simply taking more days off and training longer on the days you train. Instead, try reducing exercise by 60 to 90 percent while only reducing exercise frequency by 30 to 50 percent.

doing too much: The most common mistake tapering athletes make is still training too hard. The number one reason athletes train too hard during a taper is a lack of confidence in their abilities. It’s important to remember that there is very little you can do to improve your fitness within two weeks of a race anyway, so you might as well rest and recover. Too many athletes feel the need to “test” their legs.

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Tapering too often: All types of races are available to athletes these days, which means people line up quite frequently. If you try to rejuvenate too often, you risk losing fitness over time. Try to only cut back on events that are 8-12 weeks apart so you have time to build fitness in between.

Not refueling properly: As you taper, you decrease the volume of your workout, which may mean you need fewer calories than usual to meet your daily needs. However, that doesn’t mean you should use this time to try to lose weight. Tapering is a time when you should emphasize nutrition and make sure you have all the nutrients and energy your body needs on race day. In most cases, what you really want to focus on is filling your glycogen stores to maximum capacity for race day.

fill time: You may find that as you decrease volume during your taper, you will find that you have more time in your daily life. Resist the urge to fill every minute of this time. Remember, you should rest. Instead of taking extra opportunities or excursions, try to use the time you would normally exercise with recovery modalities like stretching, napping, or meal prep.

Once you hit the taper you should be excited! The hard work is done. Now you’re just crossing your t’s and dotting your i’s as you start imagining how sweet it will be to achieve your goals. If you have big dreams about the upcoming race, remember that a perfectly executed rejuvenation often yields about a three percent increase in performance.

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Mujika, Inigo and Sabino Padilla. “Scientific basis for pre-competitive tapering strategies.” Medical science. Exercises, Vol. 35, No. 7, 2003, pp. 1182-1187.,

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