The Hay’s in the Barn! How to Taper for Your Next Race

“The hay’s in the barn!” Distance runners say the funniest things.

What does it even mean?

When a runner says that the hay is in the barn, they’re referring to the fact that at a certain point you can’t gain any more fitness before a race. It’s time to taper.

The reduction in training at the end of a season to maximize performance is what we mean by tapering.

To really understand tapering and the weird hay/barn saying, you need to know a little about the stress-adaptation cycle.

It sounds intimidating but it’s actually easy – and you probably already know what it means. It takes about two weeks for your body to “absorb” a hard workout. You have to recover from the stress of running hard, then your body adapts to become stronger, more efficient, and faster.

When your goal race is two weeks away or less, you don’t want to run any workouts that are too difficult. If you do then you’re just going to get overly fatigued without the benefit of fully adapting from the workout.

The stress-adaptation process is outlined in the exquisite drawing below (by my lovely wife Meaghan).

Stress Adaptation Cycle

After a hard long run or a fast workout, you’re going to be tired. You know this. The dip in fitness from the baseline is when you’re fatigued – you actually lose fitness right after a hard effort. Your body needs time to rest and recover from that training stimulus to absorb it and ultimately get faster.

The time to race is when you’re fully recovered. You’ll have extra energy and your legs will feel sharp and responsive. But like the graph shows, if you rest too much then your fitness will start to decline – and so will your race performance.

How to Taper Effectively

My thoughts on tapering have evolved in the last 5 years or so. I used to think that you should shut down the engines completely in the few weeks before your goal race to rest. But through experience and following the advice of coaches like Brad Hudson (author of Run Faster) and elite runners Bernard Lagat, I now think a more moderate approach is the most beneficial.

Tapering the way many runners practice it is overrated in my opinion. Drastically decreasing overall volume and intensity can actually erode your aerobic fitness and leave you feeling flat on race day. Your legs need to remember how to run far and fast.

My approach has you pick your taper battles: reducing mileage on strategic days while maintaining volume and intensity on others. Being smart about what days to take off or run easy, while still putting in a moderate volume with hard workouts, will get you to the starting line feeling refreshed and ready to run a personal best.

If you’ve received a custom training plan from me, you know exactly what I mean. My tapers aren’t too long – but they’re effective at making you ready to race and feeling great.

When trying to reach your peak on a given day, a moderate 10-20% reduction in mileage is best during the two weeks before your race. You’ll be surprised at how good you feel after cutting short only a few key runs. Your body will recover quickly and you’ll finish runs with a lot left in the tank.

Decreasing the distance of 2-3 runs by about half during the week before your race is best. You should also cut your long run significantly, especially since it’s only 7 or 8 days before your goal race. An example taper (volume only) is below for a 10k race:

Training Taper

Workouts to Help You Reach Your Peak

While dropping your overall volume, maintaining and slightly increasing the  intensity in your workouts can help you feel fast without compromising your recovery.

Workouts during the taper period should be at race pace with some faster running to prepare you for your upcoming race. If you’re training for a 10k, your main workout two weeks before your race might look like:

  • 10 x 1,000m at 10k pace with 1-2 minutes recovery
  • 6 x mile at 10k pace with 1-2 minutes recovery
  • 3 x 2-mile at 10k pace with 2 minutes recovery

These workouts are highly specific to the race you’re preparing for (in this example, a 10k). When you can complete a workout like this successfully, you’re ready to race and hit your goal time. But remember that this workout is almost as challenging as the race itself so it shouldn’t be done the week of your goal race. Do it during the first taper week.

The week of your race should include 1-2 workouts that are at a similar intensity but with less overall volume. Following our 10k analogy, you might run:

  • 4 x 1,000m at 10k pace with 1-2 minutes recovery + 4 x 400m at mile – 5k pace with 1 minute recovery
  • 3 x mile at 10k pace with 1-2 minutes recovery + 2 x 400m at 3k pace with 1 minute recovery

All recovery periods after an interval should be active recovery meaning that you are walking or (preferably) jogging slowly. If you walk too slow or just stand around, you’ll be too stiff to start the next repetition and your performance will suffer. You’ll probably also feel like garbage.

Your weekly training should gradually progress to these types of workouts. In other words, from the week you start training to the week of your race, your workouts should become increasingly more specific to your goal race. Don’t start rocking these interval workouts if you haven’t built up to them!

Enhancing Recovery and Preparing to Race

As you get ready to race, you want to make sure your body is as ready as possible. You do this in two ways: by resting and recovering as much as possible and by sharpening your fitness.

Decreasing your volume will make you feel the most rested. But you can enhance recovery even more during your taper weeks by:

  • Running even slower on your easy days
  • Taking ice baths more frequently
  • Sleeping an extra 1/2 to full hour every night
  • Spending a little less time on your feet every day

Also see my post on running recovery for more strategies on how to bounce back from hard workouts.

Resting isn’t enough to perform well in a race. You also want to make sure you’re sharp – or in other words, peaked and ready to run to your potential. Race-specific workouts like I outlined above will help you get there.

An interesting concept that I have been experimenting with in my training is actively trying to increase muscle tension before fast workouts and races. The idea is that your muscles hold a certain amount of tension. Increase that tension and they can contract more quickly and generate more force. Just what you want on race day!

When your muscles have low tension you’ll typically perform worse because you feel flat. The “pop” in your legs that’s missing is because you have low muscle tension.

You should increase muscle tension before fast workouts and races and reduce it for enhanced recovery during your easy days. Below are the most practical ways that you can increase muscle tension:

  1. Sprinting – strides, hill sprints, short surges at the end of your run
  2. Weight lifting – squats, dead lifts, lunges
  3. Faster paced intervals – 200’s or 400’s at mile race pace
  4. Ice baths
  5. Salt or creatine (they alter fluid levels in your muscles)
  6. Running on hard surfaces

When you can successfully manipulate your muscle tension to be high on race day, while sharpening with the right speed workouts and resting with a slight reduction in volume, then you’re going to race really fast! It’s a balancing act but something you could experiment with as you approach your next race.

Announcing the Rebel Running Guide

If you’ve been diligently reading  Strength Running recently (who doesn’t?), you might have noticed I’m writing more articles on the theme of racing.

That’s because fall is rapidly approaching – and with it, the fall racing season. To help you reach your goals, I partnered with Steve Kamb of Nerd Fitness to help him with the Rebel Running Guide.

This comprehensive book will be a beginner’s guide to racing a 5k. You’ll learn:

  • Proper foot strike and running form
  • Barefoot running technique (plus shoe reviews!)
  • How to prevent and treat running injuries
  • How to train specifically for adventure 5k’s like Warrior Dash
  • The process of signing up, what to expect, and how to start your race
  • What to eat during training, the night before your race, the morning of your race, and post-race for recovery

The guide is a Nerd Fitness product and accordingly, will have a heavy strength training and paleo diet focus. I’m providing most of the technical running content to help get you to the starting line in the best shape of your life.

If you decide it’s right for you then you’ll run a faster 5k, stay healthy and actually enjoy your training!

We’ll be working like dogs to get this thing ready in about a month. Until then, you can have a direct impact on what’s in the book: What would you like to see? Do you have specific content ideas? What would help you to improve your 5k? Help us help you!

Leave a comment with what you’d love in the guide or email me with your idea at support@strengthrunning.com. Thank you.

EDIT: The Rebel Running Guide is no longer available. Click this link to see more resources on 5k training.

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Comments

  1. Still trying to find my ideal taper, this moderate approach makes lots of sense. I’ve tried reducing miles & increasing rest dramatically and I’m left without the right “feel” on race day so that didn’t work. Here’s hoping I have that “feel” on Labor Day!

    • It can be hard to find exactly what works for you, but let me know if you try this approach and how it feels. Good luck on your Labor Day race!

  2. I couldn’t agree more with your taper method. I have found in my running career that when I back off my mileage and intensity too much I feel flat on race day. But when I’m in the training zone and hitting my mileage and hard workouts I usually feel pretty good most of my runs. All it takes is a slight decrease in mileage like you say and shortening some of my harder workouts and I’m usually fresh and ready to roll come race day. Glad to see someone agrees with me rather then always hearing from the experts that I am wrong. We know best how our bodies work and listening to what your body wants is the best way to improve your running performance.

    • Works like a charm! Of course, there’s going to be individual variability, but for most this will work better than cutting volume dramatically, focusing too much on speed, and over resting. Thanks for commenting Daniel!

  3. Good advice on an under-covered topic – too many view the taper with fear of doing too much, instead of considering what more they can and should be doing, while decreasing the overall effort, to hone in for the race.
    I think in my case that, in addition to race specific workouts like a long tempo and some mile intervals, that my upcoming taper will absolutely focus on the extra sleep, shifting my recovery runs (no longer prescribed at 2 per day) to the afternoon (I know, I know, may ruin my rep).

    • Thanks Greg, I’ve struggled myself with figuring out a good taper and it’s taken a few tries to get it (almost) right. It’s hard to follow your own advice sometimes as you want to run too fast or you skip on the sleep, but it’s an ideal to pursue. Maybe you can change the blog to Predinner Runner?

  4. Interesting stuff. I took the liberty to link to this entry from my blog.

    Have you tried a 2 week taper? You say the body requires about 2 weeks to recover from a hard workout, so why not try to shorten the taper instead of reducing the rate of volume reduction? Of course, this is really dependent on the individual “bounce back” effect, but I curious whether you ever considered shortening the taper.
    All always a good read. Keep it up.
    Robert

    • Hey Robert – My tapers are usually about two weeks, but are just a reduced taper. See the sample 3 week plan and you’ll see that the reduction in volume begins in the 2nd week out. Thanks for the link!

  5. Jason,
    Great article and very timely for me, as I have a 10k the last weekend of September. I have a slightly off-topic question but not entirely so. As a running newbie i don’t know how, or if there is a standard format for recording interval workouts.
    For example, today I ran an easy paced 5k followed by 6 x 400m, with 3 to 4 minutes of recovery between each interval. I chose to record the 5k as it’s own event on my watch. And when I ran the intervals, I started/stopped the watch for the runs only, not having the recovery data recorded and mixed into the actual run segments.
    What is the accepted approach for recording run data like this within the community?

    • Hey Chris. I’m not exactly sure what you mean. Do you mean how you would write down this workout? Traditionally you’d see it as:

      5k warm-up
      6x400m @ xx pace, 3-4′ jog recovery

      • I was confused about letting my watch continue to run/record through the recovery segments or to start and stop it so that it displays only the actual interval segments. Or is that simply a personal preference and not a rule of thumb one way or the other?

        • Kind of depends on your watch. I don’t like to deal with the hassle of splitting it and going through everything (and my watch doesn’t store splits). So I time the warm-up run and intervals but delete it after each one. You just need a good memory 🙂

Trackbacks

  1. […] and make all the training easy.  Others, such as Jason Fitzgerald of Strength Running, argue for a less drastic taper, cutting mileage during a few key runs the first week, and cutting said mileage during such runs […]

  2. […] a fairly drastic reduction in volume. Then again, some argue for a less drastic taper approach (see How to taper for a race) where the volume reduction is not as drastic. And reading some forums there is also anecdotal […]

  3. […] it but had to google it to make sure I had it right. So I thought I would share what I found from here with all of […]

  4. […] likely it was from Strength Running, Jason Fitzgerald’s site. He has a good post on tapering, here. And speaking of […]