The Art of Tapering for a Marathon
During the final few weeks before a big race it is time to start tapering by decreasing running volume and paying extra attention to rest, recovery, and proper nutrition and hydration. While it is physiologically impossible to gain or lose fitness during taper, it is possible to hinder your performance ability in the upcoming race by approaching taper with the wrong attitude. Tapering is not an exact science and should be individualized to the needs of each person. Listed here is everything you need to know about the art of tapering.
When to Start your Taper
A taper time frame is completely dependent on the length of your race. For marathon distance and above, 2–3 weeks is appropriate. For a half marathon, 2 weeks will suffice, and for any distance shorter than a half, 1–2 weeks is recommended. Beginner runners should certainly err on the side of caution and choose a taper at the higher end of the time frame, while veteran runners may feel best with a shorter taper. However, the body often requires 10 days in order to begin to feel the physiologic effects from changes in exercise routine, so even for shorter races a taper longer than one week may be required.
How Many Miles?
The prevailing view for the past 60 years on marathoners who are tapering has been to drastically cut mileage by 35% the first week of taper (the week following peak week), then run 40% of peak mileage the week after that, and finally, only run 20% of peak mileage during marathon week (not including mileage from the marathon itself). This steep reduction in mileage was believed to allow for optimal muscle recovery and energy storage; however, many athletes find that they experience additional aches and pains, illnesses, and “taper tantrums” during a heavy taper which can ultimately derail plans for a PR performance.
In recent years, many coaches have been promoting the idea of a more gradual taper. Here, runners receive the same benefits of reduced mileage while also experiencing fewer symptoms of taper. Many coaches believe that tapering can make runners more susceptible to injury or illness because the immune system works in overdrive during periods of intense training, such as what is experienced immediately before taper begins. As soon as the runner begins to rest, the immune system is given the signal to relax, which subjects the athlete to any viruses he or she has been fighting. The modern taper only reduces mileage by 15% in the first week, then 30% after that, and finally by 50 – 60% during marathon week.
Tapering allows muscle glycogen stores to return to peak levels.
In both types of taper, the biggest reductions in mileage come from drastically shortening the long run. In the traditional taper, long run mileage drops from 20 – 24 miles to 12 miles during the first taper week. In the second taper week, the long run is only 8 miles. For the modern taper, long run mileage is 16 during the first week and 13 miles the following week. Beyond the long run, every other run during the week is reduced by approximately 15%.
Importance of Maintaining Intensity
Some runners mistakenly believe that taper is a period of only running slow miles. Approaching this crucial time period with that attitude can lead to legs feeling heavy and “rusty” on race day. Runners should maintain the same intensity of both their easy runs and workout days. While speed workout volume should be reduced, it is still important to run race pace or faster workouts. Sample workouts during taper include mile repeats at race pace or 6–8 x 200 m repeats at mile pace. Running race pace, especially when tapering for a marathon, is essential in order to help the body lock into the proper pacing strategy, especially since race pace will feel different on fresh legs.
There are a few training plans which drastically cut workout volumes starting three weeks out from the race. The keyword here is ‘drastically’, and I see it as a huge mistake to avoid especially if you have been training hard and diligently for 12 to 20 weeks.
Physiologically, the human body needs ten days to acknowledge the benefits of a workout and fully recover. If you’re training for a marathon, do your longest run three weeks before the race and then gradually decrease the mileage. Starting the taper too early can rob you of a potential great workout.
Maintain intensity and keep doing those speed sessions, whether you’re running a marathon, half-marathon or 10k race.
Reducing Taper Tantrums
Running is both physical and mental, just like taper. The last phase of your training program will feel different – tense, both physically and mentally – as a physiological result of pre-race anxiety. You may feel ‘phantom pains’, as your mind may be tackling different race-day scenarios.
Runners are prone to experiencing many different feelings and emotions during taper. Commonly, runners feel anxious, out of shape, nervous, jittery, and fatigued – all in the span of an hour. During taper it is important to mitigate the amount of mental energy that is spent worrying or being anxious about race day. Runners are encouraged to create an affirmation journal and write positive thoughts (such as how well the training cycle went or about the build-up’s best long run or workout) any time negative feelings manifest. Taper is also a time where runners have extra time on their hands, which can lead to increased jitteriness. Athletes should devote this extra energy to a stress-relieving hobby, such as reading or knitting.
Taper is a great time to visualize the race. Simulate the race experience and course in your head before it actually happens. Envision how you will feel at different checkpoints along the course.
Your brain will help you if you picture a strong race and a fast finish. The mental game is all about getting ready for the big race, but make sure you tackle your emotions well.
Nutrition During the Taper
Another important component of taper is carbohydrate loading. A common misconception is that carbohydrate loading should occur for the entire duration of taper. While runners will feel more hungry during taper (due to additional fuel required by the body in order to repair damaged muscles), no drastic changes in diet should be made until three days before the race. It is only during this time period that runners should aim to consume 8–10 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight and limit fat intake as much as possible. Look for healthy, whole grain carbohydrate sources, and do not use carbohydrate loading as an excuse to consume an excessive amount of junk food.
Protein intake should be increased during the first week of the taper period as you’ll need to provide high amounts of protein to reverse muscle fatigue and damage resulting from prolonged distance training. Aim for 0.6-0.8 grams per pound (that’s 1.3-1.7g/kg).
Fat intake should be reduced for the entire taper period.
What not to do During Taper
Every year, runners fall victim to their own neuroses and sabotage their taper. During taper, never take up a new hobby or cross training exercise. Often, runners feel distraught by not being able to exercise as much as normal, so they take it upon themselves to find alternative ways to exercise. Attending a new yoga class, exercise group, or going for a long bicycle ride can deprive muscles of crucial restoration. Taper is not a time to try anything new, including exercise routines, foods, drinks, stretches, or running shoes. In addition, it is best not to make any important decisions during this time, as most runners experience a “brain fog” during taper that can cloud judgment due to exercise withdrawal.
Tapering for a race can be difficult. Whether you are a beginner tackling his or her first marathon or a seasoned runner looking to set a new personal record, taper is always filled with nerves and anxiety. Remember that you don’t need workouts focused on enhancing VO2 Max but centered on race pace. Pay attention to mileage, long runs distance (don’t go overboard) and wear the same shoes in the ‘dress rehearsal’ workout three to four days out from the race.
Follow the principles, they are of paramount importance. Calm your nerves, rest your muscles, prepare your body, and visualize the race.