In the lead-up to the Ottawa Marathon earlier this year, Rebecca Gardiner didn't head to the track or the gym; nor did she get out on her favourite route for a long run. Instead, she hit the couch. Getting a few weeks of rest was essential to her performance on race day.
"I am a big fan of tapering," says the 34-year-old from Oakville, Ont. "It's the only time a runner can not run and feel good about it."
Many runners can't give up training hard right up to the last minute, but it can leave them exhausted midway through an event. Tapering, or gradually reducing the length and intensity of workouts in the weeks leading up to a race, is key to ensuring that runners are rested and rejuvenated.
"Tapering is where so many people blow it," says Don Fink, author of Mastering the Marathon: Time-Efficient Training Secrets for the 40-plus Athlete. Many marathoners simply don't accept that reducing their training before an event can benefit them. "The majority of endurance athletes have that feeling that it's got to hurt or it can't be good for me," Mr. Fink says.
For runners preparing for a marathon, Mr. Fink, who is also a coach, recommends a three-week taper that sees runners doing three-quarters of their peak training volume in the first week, half in the second week and two hours of light running - total - in the final week. (He suggests a nine-day taper for half-marathons).
"If it's longer than that, we tend to lose our top fitness," he says. "If it's shorter than that, we tend not to be rested enough."
Stephen Stein of Toronto, who has completed 30 marathons in as many years, says tapering is essential for any runner who wants to cross the finish line in their goal time.
"You need to cut back and let the legs relax," he says. "To me, it wouldn't make any sense not to taper before a marathon. You're out there for a long time and you want to do your maximum. To do a full 50- or 60-mile week the week before doesn't make any sense at all."
Deciding whether to taper often comes down to experience, says Kyla Rollinson, a coach with the Boreal Running Club in Montreal.
"Beginners tend to think they need to train hard right up until race day. People who are more seasoned realize that there is a cumulative training effect and that it's important to get more rest leading into the race," she says. First-time marathoners who are anxious about completing a race tend to think "more is better," Ms. Rollinson adds.
Of course, it's not. Giving sore muscles a chance to rest after weeks, if not months, of training improves runners' chances of performing at their peak when it counts. It also helps minimize the likelihood of succumbing to injury just before - or worse, during - an event.
"The idea of tapering is giving your body, your cardiovascular system and your muscles time to rest and recoup and get ready for the big event," says Gillian Goerzen, a kinesiologist and personal trainer based in Nanaimo, B.C.
"Without that rest, muscles don't get stronger and more effective at what they're doing," she says. "If you don't take any time off, you're probably going to go into a race feeling pretty burnt out. You're probably going to go into that race potentially struggling with some injury issues ... and you could end up being injured in the race, which would be really unfortunate."
By the same token, coasting through a taper and thinking it marks the end of training can also be harmful.
"If you do too little, you can feel tight and sore and stiff and not fluid in your running," Ms. Goerzen says. "You have to listen to your body."
Worse still would be to assume that tapering meant nothing but weeks of rest.
"To take a couple of weeks off running completely and call that your taper could be detrimental to your race," Ms. Goerzen says. "Your body can be deconditioned in a matter of a couple of weeks. But that's if you take the time completely off."
Midway through a taper, however, some runners may find they have so much excess energy they feel they have to go out and burn it off.
"The important thing for athletes to do is really just push those thoughts aside and stick with your tapering plan," Mr. Fink says. "That's what's going to get you feeling good on race day."
Ms. Gardiner, who is chronicling her attempt to improve her running on the blog "Couch to Kenyan" on Canadian Running Magazine's website, is preparing to run a half-marathon next month.
She will taper for that event, too, and is already looking forward to the break from a busy training schedule.
"It's such a welcome relief from when you're running really long distances," she says.