Tapering for a Marathon
It's peak Autumn marathon season with the Chicago race imminent, closely followed by Amsterdam and New York and many other smaller races so thousands of runners will be in the midst of tapering for their target race or just about to start. For me, it's the Frankfurt marathon on the 25th October this year which has been been my almost obsession for the past 14 weeks or so.
One of the attractions of the marathon for me, perversely perhaps, is that it's probably far easier to mess up your race preparation than it is to get it right. Much of it of course is out of your control. Over the race weekend you need the weather to be right, the flights to be on time if you're travelling afar, the race organisation to work etc. You've also got to avoid catching a cold or worse when it always seems to be that suddenly, days to go before the race, everyone within 100 metres of you has some form of botulism as is intent on passing it on. Then there is a myriad of other factors - getting enough sleep, not eating too much but sufficient to fuel your race the night before, eating the right thing on the morning of the race, remembering to pack your shoes and watch etc. etc.
Knowing you have trained for the race properly and put in an effective taper however will give you huge inner confidence that will minimise these potential pitfalls; it's the stress of feeling unprepared that causes these factors to loom up out of all proportion.
Putting a tapering strategy together is a very individual thing. Finding the right strategy for you may take many attempts because it's often very difficult to isolate individual factors that contributed to either a disappointing performance or one that exceeded your wildest expectations. It's here that keeping a running log is extremely valuable and I strongly recommend any serious runner to use one so they have an accurate record of what training was undertaken with what result stretching back.
So while your ideal tapering strategy is unique to you here is my general advice which may help with the basis of your plan.
Remain Focused on your Target Race
Tapering is about backing off and letting your body recover from the hard training you have put in over the past n weeks. For most it comes as a blessed relief, with the last long run of the training plan seen as the watershed moment. My first piece of advice is to maintain focus on your target marathon rather than the end of training plan/start of the taper. I've found in the past that when I've targeted a half marathon in the few weeks before a marathon and run a PB I have struggled to tell myself that 'yeah that's great, but there's still this marathon to run!'. It's almost as if the good half result becomes an acceptable outcome of the training. So tapering is still training and you shouldn't back off too much, especially mentally.
How Long to Taper?
The length of the ideal taper causes much debate - you'll read anything from 4 weeks to 10 days with every permutation in between. The concensus is 2-3 weeks of reducing mileage. In my opinion, the more experienced you are the shorter the taper you need. For example I would not advise a beginner to run their last 20-mile or so long run 2 weeks out from the race but I would expect to recover from an easy paced effort within that time period. As you back off from training, sharpness is affected much more quickly than your endurance so if your goal is to get round comfortably you can afford a longer taper.
How to Reduce Mileage
In my typical training week I aim to fit in three hard efforts - two of which would be quality sessions (tempo, hills, intervals, fartlek etc.) with the third being either a long run or a race. I wish I could tell you I stick rigidly to this but that's the plan at least! During the taper I gradually reduce and drop the other, easier sessions that make up the training week, leaving the quality sessions in there.
I like to get a half marathon race in three weekends before the race if possible but if I had to go for a race two weeks out I'd aim for a 10 miler at most. I also reduce the volume of quality work - less repetitions, fewer hills - but keep the speed. That reminds your body what it's like to run fast but avoids the worst of the fatigue and damage that the latter reps do (and probably missing out on a disproportionate amount of the training effect of the session too, but it's now too late to make significant positive changes to your ability this close to the race in any case). In the week of the race I tend to do very little with one short quality session on the Tuesday and a few easy runs on the other days with a rest on Saturday.
Food and Drink
If you're running significantly less, you'll need to eat less too. I find my appetite lags my training a little. When I start up after a lay-off it takes some time to build up to my full eat like a horse capacity and similarly when backing off it can take a while before my system realises it doesn't want quite so much.
I drop alcohol for two weeks before the race. Now I like a pint so this can be a bit of a trial however it does cut out empty calories. Being able to look forward to a post-race drink (I find a Guinness works for me. Ok, several Guinnesses!) and the active avoidance of alcohol in the run up helps keep my mind focussed on the effort ahead.
Personally I've not tried carbo-loading (the avoidance of carbs for a few days to run down your stores, prior to piling them on in the hope of storing more in your muscles and liver) so I can't say if it's effective. Several of my club-mates have tried it and looked pretty miserable picking at a green salad for days so I think it would be too much of a miserable experience for me!
Eating more calories from carbohydrates in the few days before the race is universal advice. I don't recommend going mad the night before - maximise your carbo intake on the Friday night (assuming the race is the Sunday). If you've been running 20M+ efforts during training then you don't need a lot more calories than you ate before those runs. Personally I don't follow the advice of eating x grams of carbs per Kg of bodyweight etc. It's just an extra stress and another thing to obsess about.
The Mental Aspect
Tapering can be tough on the mind especially if you are prone so an element of self-doubt as I am. You will probably feel like you are getting fat, heavy and unfit but in fact none of these things are happening and this is why I think it's important to keep the quality work in your schedule to remind yourself that you can still do it!
Keeping a training log helps here too as you can look back on all the work you have put in both to remind you that you have done a great deal and perhaps spur you on to think that after all that effort you want a good result!
Good luck if you're racing and I hope you get the result you are looking for. Why not post your tips on good tapering strategy below?
Andrew (@windsorAndy) is a 2:37 marathon runner and won the vets race in the 2008 Amsterdam Marathon