Tapering: What does that mean?

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Q: I am getting ready to compete in my first half marathon. In my training, I have been following the advice of friends who are runners and consulting books/websites. Race day approaches, and my resources instruct me to begin “tapering.” What does that mean?

Good luck with that race! And, may we suggest that you add the following to your library of training resources: ACSM’s Training Considerations for Novice Recreational Runners, found in the 2014 ACSM’s Certified News. To taper properly you must have trained properly; this resource will help you do that.

There is no one correct way to taper prior to a competitive sporting event, so we will try to give you some general principles to use.

First, let’s define what it means to taper as part of a precompetition training routine. Tapering is a progressive reduction in training loads designed to reduce the physiologic and psychologic stress of training prior to a competition. A successful taper will optimize sports performance. In the case of a half-marathon, it is the final part of an entire training regimen that starts several weeks prior to the race. A successful taper will help the runner avoid doing both too much and too little in the period before a race, allowing the individual to stand on the starting line feeling “fresh” and ready to run a PR, or otherwise reach their goals.

Second, let’s underscore that there is not a great deal of scientific evidence for what constitutes an ideal taper. There are different “recipes” based on a runner’s experience, pre-race training and race distance.

Typical recipes will include having an individual do their final long run (approximately race distance) two weeks prior to race day, in the case of a half marathon. These recipes also suggest a gradual diminishing of mileage and an incorporation of non running cross-training in these final two weeks. Typically, the final two days of a taper will include a marked reduction of any running and even considering avoiding running entirely on the day prior to race.

Tapering is an important part of an overall training regimen for competition. Do it, and as you gain more experience as a runner, you can figure out over time what works best for you.

Q: While training to compete in an upcoming obstacle course race, I’ve been experimenting with different techniques to reduce muscle soreness after workouts. One technique I keep reading about is “cryotherapy.” I recall Kobe Bryant, among other elite athletes, championing the idea of cold water immersion after workouts to enhance recovery. Should I do the same?

Many purported modalities and interventions exist to facilitate post-workout recovery. These include heat/cold modalities, as well as foam rolling. A recent ACSM Q&A reviewed many of these interventions: Optimal Recovery: Practical Implications for the Recreational Athlete. We encourage you to read that!

Various forms of cryotherapy (cold therapy) are used in medicine. For instance, when you go to a doctor to get a wart “burned off,” the procedure is typically done with very cold liquid nitrogen. This is cryotherapy. Special types of cryotherapy are now being considered to treat heart attacks and spinal cord injuries. You are also using a form of cryotherapy when you ice down a tendon after working out.

There is also the type of “whole-body cryotherapy” which Kobe Bryant is reported to have used. Your specific question relates to the use of immersion of parts or all of the body in cold water/cold water immersion (CWI) to facilitate recovery from strenuous workouts.

The evidence for this treatment is mixed, with most studies showing little or no objective benefit.

However, CWI has been shown to improve subjective outcomes of DOMS and RPE. Thus, based on our current understanding of CWI for recovery from exercise: you may experience a placebo effect from the therapy. But if you want to be like Kobe, you may want to give it a try.

A final note of caution: as with many newer therapies, little is known about any potential inadvertent side effects of CWI. One should always interpret case reports with a note of caution, but we would be remiss if we did not share with you a recently published case report describing an abdominal aortic dissection after whole-body cryotherapy. If you are going to do post-workout CWI, we would always encourage you to do this while being observed and with a partner.