How to taper right to be fit and ready for your marathon

How to taper right to be fit and ready for your marathon

I am not keen on the word ‘taper’. There, I’ve said it. The word is synonymous with cutting back or reducing, and often brings anxiety and a feeling of rustiness. For me, the key to getting it right is to reframe it and to look at it more holistically, beyond the generic rules.

Tapering is a process of cutting back training so you can absorb the hard work you’ve done in the peak weeks of training. The goal is to get you to the start line feeling energised and ready to perform, but without losing fitness. Marathon running requires you to get fitter and stronger, but it also demands that you deliver that fitness on one day. So the taper should, in theory, make your race-day performance a little more predictable.

The majority of the sports science literature focuses on the physiological aspects of tapering. That is to say, adjusting the frequency, duration, intensity and type of training over a set period of days to reduce load before racing. For the marathon, this has led to the formulation of a broadly standard set of rules:

This all sounds good, logical stuff, right? So what are my issues? Rather than a separate and distinct block, I prefer to think of this as a final period of training – a time to focus on performance readiness and fine-tuning. Is this just semantics? Not for me – it’s about a mindset. The dictionary definition of ‘taper’ is to reduce or diminish. For me, a good period of performance readiness might require scaling down some elements of your training, but increasing some others.

So I’d encourage you to reframe the taper, thinking wider than the purely biophysical rules. Like a sound engineer in a studio, you are subtly adjusting several dials to get your body and mind pitch perfect.

A 2017 article in the Journal Of Sports Sciences explored the tapering practices of seven Olympic track and field coaches. While the research showed that these coaches did implement many of the conventional rules I have outlined here, they placed a greater emphasis on the psychological aspects of preparation than is normally the case. In addition, they appeared to take a much more adaptive approach in the final two to three weeks – changing training according to how their athletes felt, on a day-to-day basis, if necessary.

Perhaps the best-known example of an unconventional tapering period is that of marathon world record holder Eliud Kipchoge. Kipchoge’s training in the build-up to his victory in the 2017 Berlin Marathon showed his weekly mileage stayed fairly consistent, between 110 and 120 miles a week, right up until race week; only then did he cut back – a little.

British marathon runner Steve Way qualified for the 2014 Commonwealth Games by running 2:16 at the London Marathon. He slept in a camper van the night before he lined up, having only committed to the race a few days before, as part of his training towards a 100km event.

I am not necessarily recommending these approaches to tapering, of course, but I highlight them to illustrate that there is some art and magic involved in getting your best race-day performance.

For example, in a previous article, I talked about adapting your training according to whether you are more of a ‘fast runner’ or more of an ‘endurance runner’. If you are the former, you may find you need a slightly longer taper; if you are the latter, you may want to maintain easy and steady mileage closer to race day. Are you a routine-driven person? If so, you may want to keep the frequency of your running the same and not alter your work or nutrition too much.

To sum up, the key to tapering is knowing yourself and having a good understanding of what you are trying to achieve, what type of runner you are and what your key life stressors are. Think more holistically and don’t be confined by the rules – what makes you feel good is important, too.

How you get to a place of performance readiness can be unique to you. This final period of fine-tuning is a process that should be about good decision-making rather than always following convention. Focus on what this period is designed to achieve – a full mental and physical battery on race day – then plan how to get there.

Stress / Psychological fatigue and stress can impair your performance in training and on race day. Be sure to include activities that help you feel calm – such as reading, listening to music, cooking or yoga – and try to limit stress in the workplace and at home as much as possible.

Comparison / Consider trying to centre your thoughts on you, for now. Worrying about what others have done or are doing is likely to waste energy you need while you taper.

Overanalysis / Too many runners expect their faster sessions to feel fantastic during the taper, as they are doing less training overall. Accept how you feel and don’t try to predict race day from your final few faster sessions or longer runs.

Risk / Common sense suggests that if you’ve included training sessions or any non-running activities that pose an injury risk, now is the time to reduce them.

Patterns and routines / Runners are creatures of habit, and a key part of being prepared is to keep the final weeks feeling as normal as possible. Radical changes to training or lifestyle are likely to upset the physical or emotional applecart. Whether it is maintaining the frequency of your runs, not doing anything drastic with your nutrition or trying new kit with just a few days to go, make this period feel natural and normal. Consistency is your friend.

Fitness / At this point, your training should be designed to build up your energy while maintaining fitness. Aiming to include sessions with the goal of building new fitness too close to the race is a high-risk strategy.

Confidence / I’m often asked what are the best sessions to do in a taper. The answer: the ones that give you the most confidence. In addition to the running, reflect on your training and pick out some of the key positives from the last few weeks.

Energy levels / Whether it’s getting to bed a bit earlier, improving your nutrition or simply by generally spending a little less time on your feet – running or in daily life – aim to recharge your batteries over the final weeks.

Responsiveness / Be prepared to be even more flexible and adaptive in this period. If you feel you need more rest – or even less – respond.

Zip / For most runners, maintaining some faster running every few days, whether in the form of strides or even controlled intervals, will help keep some spring in the legs. Now you are ready.

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