Taper vs. Reverse Taper: What's The Difference?

February 28, 2024

For seasoned marathon and ultra-runners, tapering and reverse tapering is almost second nature. For those who are newer to the sport (shoutout to those training for their first marathon!) tapering can be intimidating! It’s common to ask questions like: What is tapering? And what are the benefits of tapering? Team Injinji Athlete and Corrective Exercise Specialist Jesse Fuller (@fullerrunsfar) shares his insight on everything you need to know about tapering for runners.

Jesse Fuller kneeling down on grass in front of a lake with his dog sitting in front of him, both smiling. Jesse Fuller kneeling down on grass in front of a lake with his dog sitting in front of him, both smiling.
Jesse Fuller and his border collie standing on a yoga mat outside next to their campsite doing calisthenics with a large water jug for weight.Jesse Fuller and his border collie standing on a yoga mat outside next to their campsite doing calisthenics with a large water jug for weight.

Please share your background as an athlete and Corrective Exercise Specialist.

I’m a seasoned ultra runner, as well as a new mountain biker and swimmer, and an exercise physiologist in Washington D.C. I work with athletes of all levels from elite to those just dipping their toes in the water with intentions of diving into the sport head-on (as well as those who aren’t necessarily athletes but just rehabbing from pain).

What is a taper?

A taper refers to the period of reduced training volume leading up to an athletic event, in which runners gradually decrease both the duration and intensity of their workouts while maintaining their fitness levels. Tapering occurs in the final days or weeks of a runner's training block and allows an athlete’s body to relax and recuperate leading up to a race. The length of a taper differs depending on variables such as race distance, fitness level, or individual response to tapering. The goal of tapering is for the body to recover from accumulated fatigue of training while maximizing race-day performance. 

Why is tapering a critical component of a runner’s training cycle? How does it contribute to a runner’s performance on race day?

As a runner who primarily works with other runners (and whose majority of friends are also runners), I’m surrounded by a lot of individuals who call running their catharsis from their daily hectic lives — hence usually skipping the tapering process. However, tapering is crucial for success. Professional runners prioritize tapering, especially after months in their training block. This allows the body to prevent burnout and injuries while still retaining all the adaptations the body has earned from training and allocates all energy on race day for a successful event.

Are there any challenges that come with tapering?

Of course, things can go wrong. You may feel more fatigued than you'd planned or something gets in the way of scheduling.  Most of your fitness has already peaked during the taper process, so inserting a HIIT workout here or there to quell boredom or going on a “shake-out” run may not be as beneficial to a planned PR.

What is a reverse taper? How does a reverse taper play a role in preventing injury and aiding in the transition back to regular training?

A reverse taper comes into play after long-distance events (whatever that definition means for you). It assists athletes’ progress from post-activity recovery back into vigorous targeted training, before returning to a more structured training block for their next event. Whereas the taper prepares an athlete for the stresses that come along with competing, the reverse taper (it’s in the name) gradually and safely increases stress and activity levels before a training block to prevent over-training that’s so common in the industry.

From your experience, when have athletes found it beneficial to incorporate a reverse taper into their training routine?

Learning how to incorporate a reverse taper into a training block has a lot of variables such as duration of the event, experience, body’s current state, date of the next event, and more. The general rule of thumb that I’ve heard in the marathon world is to take a day off per mile run in a race. For the full Ironman competitors and ultra runners reading this, I just sensed your eyes roll…

Could you provide insights into the physiological aspects of tapering and reverse tapering?

From a physiological standpoint, listening to your body is key. Ask yourself, “Is everything operating normally?" “What components are limited?” “Does a specific body part need to be addressed?” If one isn’t equipped with that awareness, see a professional to get a “tune-up.” From a mental standpoint, ask yourself, “Do I feel ready for what’s next?” You’re ready when you’re ready, and when you are, the reverse taper is there and is waiting for you.

The final questions to ask yourself are, “Am I happy?” “Am I having fun?” “Is this worth it?” If you’re reading this, the answers are likely “Yes.” Think of the tapering and reverse tapering process as a staircase. You gradually descend into your race (taper) and gradually ascend for what’s next (reverse taper), taking it one by one, not skipping steps or adding additional steps. 

Whether you’re getting ready for your first or your fiftieth marathon, incorporating a taper and reverse taper into your training schedule is crucial for maximizing performance and reducing the risk of injury. 

Don’t forget to grab a new pair of Injinji socks before your next race!