Understanding the need to taper and recover from races and training

As runners we’ve all heard about the need to taper or recover leading up to important races, but why do we hear so much about it?

Most of us will appreciate the need to ‘back off’ from our rigorous training at times or perhaps tak a day off from running altogether as our muscles and body just feel too fatigued to get out there and run some more, but why? You can often read that there is a benefit to running / training whilst on tired legs to mimic how you will feel in the latter stages of a race for example. This is often a form of raining that those preparing for an ultra marathon might do – say a 25/30 mile run on Saturday followed by another 15/20 on Sunday.

What many don’t fully appreciate is that it is while resting that our body repairs and heals itself. In other words, the adaptions that take place after a hard work out, such as a long run or speedwork, tempo runs, etc, these only take place while resting. When we are pushing ourselves to improve, be it to run longer or faster, we create many microscopic tears to our muscles. It is this damage that when healed and repaired, grows back stronger – allowing us to be stronger, faster or more adept at running further.

Now, if we continue to push ourselves hard every day, running or training on already damaged and fatigued muscles, it becomes very hard to train well. I wouldn’t encourage it, but anyone who’s tried to run hard and / or long every day will tell you that their training performance simply suffers as they struggle to maintain the quality. It is for these reasons, amongst others, that we need to back off and have ‘recovery days’, either cross training (perhaps biking or swimming for example) or possibly even have a day off after a hard session. Think how hard it is to complete your weekly long run in the build up to a marathon or half marathon if the day before you completed a multiple set of speed interval repeats. Your long run suffers, you may not complete it all as planned and such, you won’t get the benefits that you would have otherwise received.

So after weeks of building up to your race goal, doing all the ‘good’ things, such as hill repeats, tempo runs, speedwork, etc, your body will hopefully have made some pretty big adaptions, but chances are, is that there are still a lot of muscle tissue damage that needs to be fully repaired and glycogen stores replenished and topped up. To run at your optimum – often known as ‘peaking’, you’ll need to have all muscles rested, fully repaired and feeling fresh. This means reducing the volume of training you’ve been doing. Too often people will also reduce the number of quality sessions in this ‘tapering’ period, which will typically be somewhere between 2-3 weeks for a marathon and less for shorter distances.

The trouble with reducing the ‘quality’ sessions too much is that your body will begin to lose its leg turnover speed. So, you should reduce the number of speed repeats, or the length of the tempo runs, but keep some fast leg turnover work even into the last week – to a degree. However, as you reduce the mileage over the couple of weeks leading up to your big race, your legs should begin to feel ‘fresher’, even sprightly. Your energy levels should feel good as your start to burn off less glycogen and calories, fat, etc. This said, be mindful not to overeat and consider reducing your fat and calorific intake as your reduce your output. It is natural to put on a couple of pounds in the last week or so, but no point in undoing all that good work, eh? It’s hard dragging extra weight around a course!

Similarly, after your race, in particular a long distance event such as a half or full marathon. Your body will probably have run as hard and as longer as it ever has. No matter how you feel immediately after the race, you will have created some damage, hopefully only microscopic muscle tissue tears, but often bigger problems to tendons and cartilage. Running too much too soon after the race will greatly increase the risk of getting injured. Muscles will be fatigued and further stressing them, particularly in the first few days and week will often result in a breakdown. When fatigued muscles don’t work properly, the force and impact each stride has on your body will need to be soaked up, possibly by tendons or bone. Trust me, this IS how we get injured!

Ease back into running slowly. Nothing too long or too fast for a couple of weeks afterwards. Don’t get me wrong though. This period before and after our race where we’re reducing the amount of running we do is tough. For me it’s the worst and the hardest part of training for a race. I’m a runner, I want to run, but running and training smart will help you all in the long run. Something many of us all learn the hard way!

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