Marathon Buddy: A Guide to Tapering

Tapering is a critical part of any marathon training plan, enabling you to get to the start line refreshed and at your best. But what does it involve, how long should it last, and how much running should it include? We’ve sifted through expert opinion on the subject to give you a handy overview of top tips.

What is a Taper? Why Do I Need To Do It?

The “taper” is the period before your race when you reduce weekly mileage.

Tapering is a chance for your body to rest and refuel, and to recover from those months of intensive marathon training. It gives you a chance to build up a reserve of strength and energy, and allows your body to repair the accumulated wear and tear.

The aim is to arrive at the marathon start line in the best possible shape and feeling great.

The key benefits of tapering are:

  • To reduce the tiredness and physical fatigue of high mileage training.
  • To allow repair of muscle fibres.
  • To reduce general damage, or inflammation of any niggles you’ve experienced in the past few weeks.
  • To increase your red blood cell count, which raises your aerobic capacity (and will help your endurance).
  • To rebuild glycogen stores in the muscles, essential for fuelling your marathon.
  • To strengthen the immune system, as well as restore hormones, enzymes, and minerals to normal levels.
  • To reduce risk of new injuries, or of existing injuries getting worse.
  • To focus the mind and allow you to feel fresh, alert and ready.

Most importantly, it works! Reviews of over 50 scientific studies on tapering (see e.g. Mujika, 1998) have shown very strong evidence that tapering works, and can make a difference of 3-5 percent in performance. For a 4-hour marathon runner, that’s a difference of between 7 and 12 minutes.

How Long Should I Taper For? And How Much Do I Reduce By?

Generally, a three week taper is considered optimal for marathon training. Longer than this can result in a loss of fitness, but less than this can be inadequate for rest and recovery.

Top coaches, athletes and experts, including the likes of Paula Radcliffe1 and Pete Pfitzinger2, advise the following reduction:

  • 3rd week before marathon: reduce to 80% of peak mileage.
  • 2nd week before marathon: reduce to 60% of peak mileage.
  • Last six days: reduce to 40% of peak mileage.

So for example, if your highest mileage week was 50 miles, then your taper would be as follows:
3rd week (21-15 days) before marathon – run 40 miles total
2nd week (14-8 days) before marathon – run 30 miles total
Final week (7-1 days) before marathon – run 20 miles total

What Running Should I Do During the Taper?

Interestingly, evidence suggests that tapering should be a reduction in mileage but not intensity.
Keeping some short, sharp, fast running seems to work well.

Fast sessions during taper are advocated by running gurus such as Pete Pfitzinger and Tim Noakes. Pfitzinger says:
“The scientific evidence indicates that the key to effective tapering is to substantially reduce your mileage while maintaining the intensity of your training. Reducing the amount you run reduces accumulated fatigue to improve your marathon performance, while interspersing efforts that you have been doing throughout your buildup, including VO2 max intervals and strides, maintains the adaptations that you have worked hard to gain over the past several months.”

Speedwork also helps you to stay sharp and focused, and avoid the heavy, lethargic feeling that can sometimes happen during the taper. Faster training gives you a psychological boost in confidence, and helps your body to remember how to run fast and light.

Some people like to do a 5k or 10k race in the last couple of weeks before their marathon. This can work really well, and result in a great time too… though careful not to go injuring yourself!

Bear in mind that this is just one approach. Many runners find a different type of taper works better for them, but of course it can take time, experience and a willingness to experiment to find this out. If in doubt, trust your instincts and do what your body seems to be responding well to.

What Else is Important During Taper?

The taper period is not just about what running you do. It is a critical period for looking after your body and preparing your mind for the marathon. Think about the following:

Resting and sleeping
Getting plenty of sleep and rest will boost your taper. This will aid repair of the muscles, and the chance to recuperate from fatigue. This will also help your body to build up the reserves of energy and fuel it needs.

Stretching
Stretching and light exercise such as yoga can be beneficial during the taper. This helps to reduce some of the stiffness and tightness built up from the long mileage, and will promote more efficient running.

However, it is advisable to cut back on weight training and any strenuous strength work. The training benefits of strength work take longer than two weeks to take full effect, so last minute strength will have little impact other than using up some of the energy reserves that you are trying to build.

Massage?
There are different views on whether a sports massage is a good idea before a marathon. Personally, I would avoid a massage any closer than a week in advance, unless I was being treated for a particular injury, because the massage itself can inflict damage on the muscle tissue. If in doubt, ask your physio.

Eating and drinking
There’s a wealth of different advice about nutrition and hydration, including a range of views about whether carbohydrate-loading works. But it’s important to learn what works for you. Last minute changes to your diet are probably not a great idea – stick with what you know and what you’re used to.

Expert opinion is that there’s no particular need to eat a lot more or a lot less during the taper period.

It’s advisable to stay well hydrated over the three week period, and to avoid alcohol. (But be aware of the implications of drinking too much water right before the start of the race, which can lead to hyponatremia and can be very dangerous).

Avoiding germs
Depending on your job, commute or family situation, avoiding germs can be a real trial! But if you know you’ve been in contact with germs, take precautions and wash your hands more regularly.

Using the time for mental preparation
You will probably have gained a few extra hours during the taper period because you’re doing less running. This time can be put to great use for mental preparation. For example:

  • Learn the route you will be running. Pick out key points and markers. Sometimes landmarks are obvious (e.g. in London you focus on Tower Bridge for half way, and then Canary Wharf), but for other events much less so. Recently I ran a marathon in an area I was not at all familiar with, and I used Google Streetmaps to go through the whole route at eye-level view. I did this several times, until I felt familiar with different streets. This helped enormously when I got to a point of real fatigue – I knew where I was and could visualise where I was heading next.
  • Devise mantras and strategies. What will you do early on to avoid going too fast, or later when you start to become exhausted? Practise your mantras and strategies in advance so that they feel natural when you use them in the race.

References
1. Radcliffe, P., How to Run (Simon & Schuster, London: 2011), p. 107
2. Pfitzinger, P., Douglas, S., Advanced Marathoning, 2nd Edition (Human Kinetics, Champaign: 2009) pp.116-117

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