When athletes ask me what is the proper way to taper for a race, I usually relay to them one of my favorite quotes:

“What you do can’t help you, what you don’t do can hurt you”

Uhm, what did you say?

What I mean by that quote is that during a taper, one of the primary focuses should be on increasing your recovery rather than increasing your fitness.  Training for a race is not like studying for an exam.  You can’t “cram” for it.  Once you are a couple/few weeks out from a race, whatever training you do will most likely not be 100% absorbed by your body and 100% translated into gained fitness for your target race (some of it will, but most likely not all of it).

How to properly taper for a race, like all training decisions, is part art and part science.

The science/physiological part of tapering consists of allowing your body to be 100% ready/recovered to race while the art or “tricky” part of tapering consists of ensuring you are 100% recovered exactly on race day.

Let’s break it down a bit.

The overall concept of tapering for a race is to SLOWLY allow your body to decrease volume from the peak volume 2-3 weeks prior to race day (depending on how long your race is).  However, you want to keep the intensity and frequency of your workouts about the same; operating under the assumtion that you aren’t nursing any strange aches or pains, etc.  Additionally, depending on your background in endurance sports, a week or so before your race might be a great time to do a short (20-30 min) all out effort to recalibrate your bike power/HR zones or running zones.  I don’t advocate doing two of these efforts, but pick one (bike or run for example) that you feel might have encountered the biggest change since your last test.

GENERALLY speaking, volume reduction guidlines for a 3 week taper could be as follows:

Peak week before taper:  Peak volume
Week 1 of taper:  75% of peak volume
Week 2 of taper:  50% of peak volume
Week 3 of taper (to include race day at the end of this week):  25% of peak volume not including race

Basically what you are trying to do during a taper is allow your body to recovery fully but also allow your body to benefit fully from your peak week of training.  If you shut down 100% from your peak training week, you’ll be “recovered” from it within a few days to a week but you will begin to lose fitness too quickly before your body has time to “adapt” to or “fully benefit” from your peak week of training.  As I mentioned above, this physiological adaptation takes about 2-3 weeks to fully occur so the taper “delays” your 100% recovery so that it occurs on the same day that your body has gained the 100% fitness from all that work you did on your last peak week.

Doing nothing or too little will have you recovered BEFORE total fitness is gained, doing too much during a taper will not have you toe the start line 100% recovered.  Since what you do 1 to 1.5 weeks (for example) prior to race day will not completely benefit you fitness-wise coupled with the reason(s) stated above is why during a taper:

“What you do can’t help you, what you don’t do can hurt you”