Article - Taper For Endurance Athletes by John Hawley

Experience From - Ed Furtaw , Kevin Sayers , Scott Burgess , Mike , Blake Wood , Jeff Washburn , Mike Erickson , Michael Scandrett , Troy Marsh , John Morelock ,

Tapering And The Immune System:
Experience From - "Tropical" John Medinger#1 , Kirsten Poulin , George Behorn , David Elsbernd , Wesley Best , Jeff Washburn , Jeanie Baker , Peter Bakwin , George Behorn#2 , "Tropical" John Medinger ,

Taper For Endurance Athletes

By: John Hawley (Director of the High Performance Laboratory Sports Science Institute of South Africa)

Originally found at SportsScience

An extract from the book, Peak Performance: Training and Nutritional Strategies for Sport, written with Louise Burke and being published by Allen and Unwin. In this article, a look at tapering before a major competitive event.

Forbes Carlile, legendary Australian swim coach

"I give notice to members of my team that within a week or so of an international contest, I shall be using the 'rest principle' very much more than the 'train hard' principle. My experience as coach has convinced me of the great importance of the 'rest principle' in making peak performances."
John Walker, first man to run under 3:50 for the mile
"I seldom run hard in training leading up to a big race. There is little point in leaving my best work on the training track."
Competitive endurance athletes often focus on optimizing performance at just one or two major events during an entire season. They usually "taper" or drastically reduce the volume of their training preceding such important meets. Indeed, it is now widely accepted that a properly designed taper should be an integral part of any endurance athlete's preparation for a major competitive effort (for review, see Houmard and Johns, 1994). Most athletes look forward to a taper as a break from the rigors of intense training. On the other hand, many coaches approach the taper period with some trepidation, as they try to hit the right balance of training and recovery.

During a taper, several variables can be manipulated in an attempt to maximize performance. These include the frequency, duration, and intensity of training sessions, and the duration of the whole taper period. So far there has been no systematic study of any of these variables; but from the existing research, some factors emerge as being important to a successful taper.

First, the training volume is reduced in an incremental or stepwise fashion for 10-14 days, so that in the 2-3 days immediately before a major competition it is almost zero. Although tapers as long as six weeks have been examined, such extended tapers at best only maintain performance, rather than improve it.

Second, training intensity should be maintained, or even slightly increased. Such intense training is probably necessary to preserve some of the training-associated adaptations that may be lost with the marked reduction in training volume. Results from a well-known study of competitive cross-country runners training approximately 80 km/week revealed that these subjects improved their performances more when they followed a low-volume, high-intensity taper for 7 days compared to a low-volume (30 km/week) low-intensity taper or no running at all (Shepley et al., 1992). Of interest was that the low-volume, high-intensity taper (which consisted of between 3-5 x 500 meter repetitions in 70-75 seconds with 6-7 minutes recovery between runs) resulted in a total weekly running volume of less than 10 km!

The final characteristic of a successful taper relates to the frequency of training sessions: the athlete should reduce the total number of sessions by no more than 30% (Houmard and Johns 1994). Any further reduction may result in a decrement in performance, because the athlete may lose the "feel" for the activity. Swimmers in particular often voice this complaint if they are forced to miss pool sessions for more than several days.

My impression is that most endurance athletes, particularly long-distance runners and cyclists, do not taper sufficiently prior to competitions. These athletes fear that one- or two-week reduction in their training schedule will result in a drastic loss of fitness, and ultimately, an inferior performance to that they would have achieved if they had trained hard right up to the event. But the published evidence indicates that most well-trained individuals can expect a performance improvement of up to 3% above their seasonal best time following a taper.

Modeling effects of the taper

Several sports scientists, most notably Eric Banister and colleagues, have developed complex mathematical models to try to predict the effects of training on performance. They assume that the intensity and duration of a training bout have a reproducible effect on an athlete's state of fitness (which enhances performance) and fatigue (which reduces performance). They also assume that the fitness resulting from a given bout decays at a slower rate than the fatigue. It follows that the athlete will get the most benefit from a given bout some time after the bout, when fatigue has mostly decayed away but some fitness is still present. Hence the need to taper.

According to these models, any training done in the last 12-14 days before a major competition has a negative effect on subsequent performance (see for example, Morton, 1997). Imagine telling an athlete not to train at all in the 12-14 days before a major event! It would take a brave coach and a faithful athlete to implement such a strategy. I think more work needs to be done on these models before athletes can use them. The idea of losing "feel" has to be included, for example. Maybe fatigue also decays faster when the bouts are shorter, which would explain why such bouts seem to be beneficial in the taper (Hopkins, 1993). Until more research is done, the taper will continue to be a blend of science and art.


Hawley, J.A. and Burke, L.M. (1998). Peak Performance: Training and Nutritional Strategies for Sport. Sydney: Allen and Unwin.

Hopkins, W.G. (1993). New guidelines for hard training. New Zealand Coach, 2, 16-20.

Houmard, J.A. and Johns, A. (1994). Effects of taper on swim performance. Practical implications. Sports Medicine, 17, 224-232.

Morton, R.H. (1997). Modeling training and overtraining. Journal of Sports Sciences, 15, 335-340.

Shepley, B., MacDougall, J.D., Cipriano, N., Sutton, J.R., Tarnopolsky, M.A., Coates, G. (1992). Physiological effects of tapering in highly trained athletes. Journal of Applied Physiology 72, 706-711.

Ed Furtaw

Dave Emmons wrote:

I am soliciting comments on the subject of tapering on behalf of my friend Ian Maddieson who will be going for his tenth silver buckle at Western States this year. He has a usual routine that he has practiced for years that works some years better than others. He says that the mental aspect of reduced training over the course of the last few weeks leading up to a hundred always leaves him wondering if he is losing strength. I would be interested to find out what kinds of tapering routines that other people use and will pass information on to Ian to help him in his quest for the gold buckle.

Dave your friend Ian for whom you are soliciting tapering advice has more experience at running 100s than most of us on this list, including me. He should be giving rather than getting advice!

Having said that, the following is not "advice". It is merely a statement of how I normally taper and prepare my body for a major ultra effort.

I usually run my peak mileage week three weeks before the ultra. Then I start my taper, i.e. reduced training mileage. In the first taper week, I might run about 70% of the peak-week mileage. Then in the second taper week I run about 50% of the peak week mileage. That gets me to one week before the ultra. I then either run NONE or only once early in the last week before the ultra. For example I might run 8-10 miles on the Monday before a Saturday ultra. After that I do not run AT ALL for the last 4 or 5 days before the event.

Then on the morning of the race, I am salivating to run! I can't wait to get started!! I feel supercharged!!!

During the last week, I sometimes try to eat a diet that is higher in proportion of carbohydrates than my normal diet. However, for recent ultras I haven't worried too much about carbo loading, I just try to eat as much good food as I can. I actually try to gain a couple pounds in that last week or so. The stored fat and carbohydrates will be put to good use during the run.

I try to get lots of sleep in the 3 or 4 nights before the event, realizing that I probably won't get a full night's sleep the night before the race.

Kevin Sayers

As a result of my newness to the sport and the number of ultras that I've run (8) my tapering routine is in a continuous state of refinement. In trying to determine what works best for me I've asked myself the following questions:

In answering these question I've determined that an all encompassing tapering routine does not necessarily work for me for the following reasons:

From the presepctive of tapering for a 100 or a 24 hour event this is my current routine: Used this plan for Vermont 100 this year and my time dropped 4 hours from last year. Made the mistake last year of running a 60 mile training run the week before allowing no time for recovery and rest. The importance of tapering before I race was not fully understood as it is today. Then again there are probably a number of other contributing factors that could be attributed my faster time but am convinced that proper tapering was the major physical and emotional element.

Scott Burgess

Andy Weinber wrote:

I am running in my first 100 miler next weekend. I am looking for advice from here on out. I have rested successfully for 50's. How is this different? I know all my training is done. Any suggestions on what I should do from here on out?
Here's what I do in the last week:

  1. Obsessively write and rewrite supply checklists on 5X7 index cards.

  2. Continue to pore over maps, while muttering "It doesn't *look* that hard ..."

  3. Read the pre race packet for the 150th time, even though you've already memorized it.

  4. Continue badgering your friends to crew for you, even though they've already said "no" several times, in no uncertain terms. If you have any friends left, that is...

  5. Create a new list of estimated splits, more optimistic (hence, unrealistic) than any of the last 6 you've drawn up.

Here's what I *should* do:


  1. I'd go down to the grocery and find a gallon container of Cherry Garcia, maybe two, and just start eating.

  2. Plot out your dropbag plan...where you'll have bags, argue with yourself over what you want to have in them...DO NOT wait until Friday night to do this!.

  3. Lay out your gear..what are you going to wear if the weather is so-and-so? What are you going to wear if it's such-and-so?.

  4. Are you staying in a motel? Do you have reservations? Are you camping? Same question...You've probably already thought of these things...maybe not

  5. Return to #1....

Blake Wood

Kevan Matthews asked:

My question is: If I can't get out tonight, that leaves me only Fri, Sat, and Sun. Will I have damaged my taper by having rested completely for 4 days? If so, should I try to get 20 or so miles in 3 days to get in that 50%?
Kevan - Actually, taking those four days off will probably help you. I wouldn't try to make up the mileage. I'm of the opinion that most people don't rest nearly enough before a long ultra. What I typically do before a hundred (not significantly different from your 70 miler) is to take my last long run on the weekend two or three weeks before the race (usually three), take only easy 5 mile/day runs the second week before the race, and take the week before the race completely off. By race day, I'm usually going crazy from lack of running, but I think the rest shows up in my times.

The downside of this is that once you've taken two weeks mostly off before the race, and at least two weeks to recover after the race, you've taken a whole month "off", which limits how many serious ultras you can do in a year. I think it's worth it, and usually only do about three "all-out" ultras per year, in addition to a bunch of more casual ones that I don't bother tapering for. I'd probably go to pieces anyway if I tried to give a maximum performance in a dozen ultras per year, like some more robust ultrarunners seem to be able to do. If this is your first long ultra, this should not be a consideration - do what you can to maximize your chances of doing well in this one.

Jeff Washburn

I always take 5-7 days off the first week of my three week taper. Then I run every other day or every three days up until the race. I usually take at least three days off before the race so that I go in well rested. I start out a bit sluggish but that's a good thing as it forces me to start slowly until I get into my race pace. Don't force yourself to run just for the sake of running. It won't help. If you've done the work, this short layoff will not negatively effect you at all.

Mike Erickson

Ease off. Long miles right now won't make any difference, period. Especially if you injure yourself. One thing to note, 2 weeks prior to a 100 or any other big race everyone a lot of things start to hurt as anxiety and jitters start to set in and phantom pains come and go.

Michael Scandrett

Give your body time to rest. I have always given myself 2-3 weeks of taper before ultras. I don't think you lose any fitness during this time, nor do I think you can gain much from any hard or long workouts this close to the event.

My own recent experience reinforces this approach. I just finished my first 100 miler a week ago at Superior Trail. Five weeks prior to the 100 I fell and injured my shin. As a result of the injury, I did very little running in the five weeks prior to the 100 miler. I probably averaged only about 12-15 miles per week of low intensity running. Despite this long five-week layoff, I had a great first 100 miler. I started out very slow in order to give my body time to get warmed up and loosened up after the long layoff, but I was able to pick up the pace after a few hours and worked my way up to finish the race in 8th place overall.

Troy Marsh

I vote for easing back. Walking or power hiking more than actual running. No running the last week.

John Morelock

Just do enough to keep the metabolism ticking over. Believe in all that training. It's all there, just waiting to be used.

At the elite level, Jeff Galloway, Olympian, used the rule that doing almost nothing will only cost you a half a percent per week during the first two weeks. So, at worst, you will only have problems from the ninety-nine on in.

"Tropical" John Medinger

Subject: Tapering And The Immune System

Folks, so OK, Wasatch is four days away and I have a heavy cold. This is the third time in the last seven "tapers" that I have come down with some sort of virus. Since I hardly ever get sick otherwise - maybe once every two years - this is too big of a coincidence to ignore.

My normal taper for a 100-miler consists of fairly high mileage (80-100 mpw) up until two weeks before the race, cutting the mileage to something less than half that (30-40 mpw) in the penultimate week, then an easy 20-30 min jog two or three times on race week.

What am I doing wrong? Can any of you medical types shed any light on ways to lessen the likelihood of attracting viruses just prior to a big race? Any advice for how to deal with running a severe race at high altitude with a head cold?

I have a hard enough time with these things without going into them sick or weakened from a recent virus.

Kirsten Poulin

Subject: Tapering And The Immune System

I too seem to get the flu or a terrible cold right before a particularly tough marathon. (And rarely at any other time.) My husband seems to think the stress before a big event is what wears down on the immune system.

George Behorn#2

Subject: Tapering And The Immune System

Double up on Zinc, vitamin C, and rest. Important to catch it at the first sign of sniffles or coughing. Keep the back of your neck warm. (Old yogi lore. Works for me.)

David Elsbernd

Subject: Tapering And The Immune System

No medical advice, but a practical observation: what if you started your taper a week or two earlier, to get the cold out of the way? Seems like a three week taper could be just as effective as a two week taper, from what I've read.

Wesley Best

Subject: Tapering And The Immune System

I have had the same problem with tapering in that I seem to start feeling bad just when I cut back on my mileage. (This also tends to happen with my rest weeks--one a month.) I try to fend off any real problems by taking echinacea as soon as I start the taper, and I get very anal about my diet, being sure to get enough protein and vegetables. I have yet to do a 100, so maybe this is like giving putting advice to Tiger, but... (During my first marathon taper I was so juiced on carbs that I alternated between felling like I had about 10 cups of coffee in my system and feeling like it took all my energy just to keep off the ground.)

Jeff Washburn

Subject: Tapering And The Immune System

A few years ago, Sue Johnston turned me on to Echinachea (sp?) and I haven't had a bad cold since. I used to get a cold after every 100 miler but this has now stopped. I'm sure I wouldn't haven't gotten through my ten 100's last year in such good health had it not been for the herb. It might be worth a try.

Jeanie Baker

Subject: Tapering And The Immune System

A new cold remedy that zaps my cold in less than three days. It is a zinc nose gel called Zicam and you should follow the directions exactly if you want it to work. I have found it in pharmacy/cold remedy section of both grocery store chains and Target, Wal-Mart, etc.

I have recommended it to four other people and it worked just as well for them. Zinc has been shown to inhibit the cold viruses. Typically with a cold, you are constantly reinfecting yourself, the nose being the most common pathway. The zinc gel coats the inside of your nose to inhibit the cold virus reinfection process.

The other low-tech, but equally effective way to reduce the length of time you are sick with a cold is wash your hands often!!!!

Peter Bakwin

Subject: Tapering And The Immune System

I have mentioned this on the list before, but it has been so important to my general health that I'll mention it again: Up until 1 year ago I had very frequent colds, like one per month. Very frustrating. Then my friend Buzz suggested I quit using dairy products. "Huh?" "Just try it." After 1 week I realized that my body does not tolerate dairy! Now, one year later, I have the best health that I can remember & have been running hard all that time. I'm also convinced that a pretty large fraction of the population has some trouble with dairy products -- lactose intolerance, allergies, trouble with digestion of the milk protein, or problems related to the hormones in milk (an Aussie friend says he had no trouble with milk until moving to the USA.) Its very very easy to find out: Quit all dairy for 1 week then drink a glass of milk. How do you feel?

George Behorn#2

Subject: Tapering And The Immune System

I'm lactose-intolerant. I went no-dairy for several years, then I began having great difficulty concentrating on my work for longer than 30 minutes at a time. I "had" to get up and move around, felt mentally very restless and had trouble focusing.

Suspecting that I was now calcium-deficient, I tried all kinds of calcium supplements. No good. Then I began experimenting cautiously with dairy, trying lactose-free milk, goat milk, yogurt, kefir, etc. I've finally settled on every-other-day plain cow's milk yogurt, and the concentration problems have vanished. It's "very easy" to get calcium-deficient when you're doing hard endurance work and not using dairy--regardless of how many carrots you're eating.

"Tropical" John Medinger#2

Subject: Tapering And The Immune System

Thanks to all the kind folks who have responded. Useful suggestions include: