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Will tapering before races increase performance?

Dr Larry W. McDaniel and Chris Heezen discuss overtraining syndrome and how tapering may be beneficial.

With prolonged training, some athletes experience symptoms of overtraining. The symptoms of overtraining are similar to chronic fatigue. Overtraining is associated with sustained poor exercise performance, infections (upper respiratory tract), general malaise, and loss of interest in high-level training. These symptoms persist unless the athlete rests to complete recovery requiring weeks or months. The gradual depletion of stored carbohydrates caused by repeated strenuous training contributes to overtraining symptoms. Overtraining symptoms often occur towards the end of the season. The goal of tapering is to provide time for muscles to resynthesize glycogen to maximum levels and allow the muscles to prevent or restore the training-induced damage.

Overtraining Signs and Symptoms

Performance-related symptoms

  • Consistent performance decline
  • Persistent fatigue and sluggishness
  • Excessive recovery required after a competition
  • Inconsistent performance

Physiological related symptoms

  • The decrease in maximum work capacity
  • Frequent headaches or stomach aches
  • Insomnia
  • Persistent low-grade stiffness
  • Muscle joint soreness
  • Unexplained loss of appetite & body mass
  • Amenorrhea
  • Elevated resting heart rate on waking (McArdle, Katch, & Katch)

Psychological related symptoms

  • Depression & General apathy
  • Mood change & Difficulty in concentrating
  • Decreased self-esteem & Loss of competitive drive


Since the growth of distance running, athletes and coaches have found it necessary to "back off" training preparation for important races to go into the race fully rested. While most successful athletes taper, there are many arguments involving tapering before the race causing unwanted results. These adverse results may be due to the body being out of its routine, which causes athletes to react and feel differently in a racing situation such as the Olympics, National Championship, etc.

Tapering should provide adequate time for healing of tissue damage caused by intense training and for body energy reserves to be replenished. The most noticeable change during the tapering period is a marked increase in muscle strength which explains some of the performance improvements. Research suggests that the taper interval should last approximately two weeks. This allows time for the skeletal muscle system to repair damaged muscles and the energy reserves (creatine phosphate, glucose, glycogen, and mitochondria) to be restored. Tapering offers a marked reduction of contraction time in fast-twitch muscle fibres. This change in fast-twitch muscle fibres is attributed to changes in the muscle's contractile elements (myosin cross bridges and actin). Following ten days of tapering fast-twitch fibres in swimmer's arms demonstrated a significant improvement in contraction speed." This process alone may improve performance during a competition. (Wilmore et al. 2004)[6]

Top athletes must spend a tremendous amount of time training to be able to compete successfully. Their huge volume of work leaves them near to exhaustion, and before a major competition, they have to find the best way to reduce fatigue while retaining fitness.


Many studies have been done to help athletes and coaches decide on the best strategy (Mirkin 2007)[4]. According to Dr Gabe Mirkin, 27 subjects were studied at the University of Montreal. The authors concluded that the best duration for tapering is two weeks, the optimum training volume reduction is by 40% to 60%, and the intensity of workouts should be maintained (Mirkin 2007)[4].

Art Lieberman's and Bob Cooper's tapering programs did not use subjects or perform experiments related to tapering. Lieberman's mileage strategies allow the runner to continue to run but with less intensity and less time on their legs to return to full strength. The article was helpful with advice on sleeping. Many times, before a big race sleep, can be difficult with thoughts and nervousness entering the mind. The most important night for sleep is the night before a marathon. If you don't get a restful night's sleep after a competition, that's fine as long as you sleep well the night before a competition (Liberman 2008)[2].

Bob Cooper did not use subjects or perform any experiments. Cooper produced a critical point stating that runners cannot lose their aerobic capacity within three weeks of the taper period, proving that a runner can safely back off their running and perform better in a race. A review of 50 studies on tapering published in the Journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise shows that levels of muscle glycogen, enzymes, antioxidants, and hormones--all depleted by high mileage--return to optimal ranges during a taper. The muscle damage that occurs during sustained training is also repaired (Cooper 2008)[1]. The term tapering is defined as reducing training so the body can rebuild to peak strength (Pfitzinger 2008)[5]. Tapering allows your muscles to repair the micro-damage in muscles, reenergize metabolic systems by promoting the storage of glycogen, assist in the processes related to overcoming chronic dehydration during hard training, and tapering may provide time for tendonitis in lower body joints to heal (Pfitzinger 2008)[5].

Should runners taper for races shorter than a marathon?

Many people agreed that tapering for a 5k or a 10k is beneficial. However, those same people agreed that not all races need to be tapered. If a 10k race is approaching and the runner needs to run as fast of a time as possible, more tapering will ensure the athlete is fully prepared. If a 10k race is approaching and the race will be used as a tempo run or just to compete, then a shorter taper is appropriate.

Is the practice of running the day before a race safe?

A majority of people agreed that running the day before a race will make the runner feel better on race day than if the same runner would take the day off.

Taper program

Pfitzinger provided readers with an example of a three-week taper before a marathon. The schedule gradually reduces mileage to let the body adapt to the new routine over some time. Week two reduces mileage but emphasized speed work to make the legs feel stronger. Week three is the most critical week of the taper because it is easier to over-train this week. The importance of the last week is to fully rest up, increase carbohydrates in nutrition, and keep hydrated. (Pfitzinger 2008)[5].


This paper supports the belief that reducing mileage before a vital race improves not only the athletes' psychological and physical well-being but may also improve performance.


  1. COOPER, B. (2008) It's Taper Time. Runner's World, 31 Mar. 2008
  2. LIBERMAN, A. (2008) Marathon Training Program. Marathon Training, 31 Mar. 2008
  3. McARDLE, W. et al. (2006) Essentials of Exercise Physiology. Lippincott: Williams, & Wilkens. Baltimore
  4. MIRKIN, G. (2007) Tapering for Athletes and Ordinary Exercisers. The Final Sprint, 2 Oct. 2007
  5. PFITZINGER, P. (2008) Tapering for a Marathon. The Pfitzinger Lab Report, 21 Apr. 2008
  6. WILMORE, A. et al. (2004) Physiology of Sport & Exercise, 4ed. Champaign: IL.Human Kinetics

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • McDANIEL, L. and HEEZEN, C. (2009) Will tapering before races increase performance? [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Authors

Dr Larry McDaniel is an associate professor and advisor for the Exercise Science program at Dakota State University, Madison SD USA. He is a former All-American in football and Hall of Fame athlete & coach.

Chris Heezen is a student of Exercise Science at Dakota State University, Madison, SD USA, and an outstanding distance runner.