Three weeks out from marathon race day (or two weeks for half marathoners) is the start of your taper phase. This is the time for less running but it’s also a time when you can go a little crazy. So to avoid the taper tantrums here are answers to your questions about entering this crucial training chapter.
What is a taper and why do it?
I heard of a guy who wanted to race a marathon. In typical male bravado, and as an inexperienced runner, he decided to head out the day before the race to run the full 42.2 kilometres just to make sure he could run the distance. He did complete the marathon on that first day, but the next day in the actual race he exploded, barely making it to 5k. This is the perfect example of what the taper is not.
Put simply, the taper is a time for rest and recovery where your body can catch up in order to feel fresh once you toe the start line.
The improvement with most physical training comes during rest periods. The training itself stresses the body and it’s only when we rest that the body is given the opportunity to not only return to its original state but also to adapt to the new level of training. So the taper phase in a marathon preparation is to make sure the full benefit from your training is realised and banked away ready to be withdrawn on race day.
What does a taper look like?
Marathon runners will typically begin their taper three weeks out from the big day. It’s two weeks for half marathons because your overall mileage will be much less.
So three weeks out (two for half marathons) you’ll do one of your longest runs and then make a deliberate switch in your training to a less-is-more approach. The first week you’ll notch your weekly mileage down to about 80 per cent of your peak volume, then 60 per cent, and then 40 per cent in race week.
You can still keep the frequency of your running the same but just run shorter distances. For example, if you ran six times a week, keep to this until race week where you’ll need some extra rest days. As far as your weekly long run goes, you might start at 33km three weeks before race day, drop to 25km two weeks out, and then just 16km one week out.
Should I do more speed work in the taper?
Yes. Now is the time to give preference to speed work. You should have been keeping a minimal amount of speed work in your training up to this point (whether it’s including some strides at the end of the run, some hills, or entering the odd 5k race), so now is the time to build on that.
The speed will help to make race pace feel more comfortable, it will refine your running form and economy, and it will also help to extend your lactate threshold (meaning that a faster paced race or a surge within a race won’t accumulate so much fatigue in your muscles).
Over these three weeks, include workouts like one-kilometre repetitions (you might do four at 5k race pace with a 90-second rest between each), tempo sessions (an extended non-stop run at a comfortably hard pace for 15 to 40 minutes), and a 5 or 10k race.
What else should I do during the taper?
In running less mileage you’ll find yourself with more spare time. Use these extra minutes or hours to stretch, improve core strength, to recover well (with ice baths and hot spas), and to get a couple of deep tissue massages.
What about race week?
This week should be the lightest week of your entire training programme. You should back off from any extra gym work or cross training as well as further notching back your running. Also, the speed work should be kept very light during these final few days (just use it to freshen the legs).
Should I be carb loading?
The pre-race pasta party has become a bit of a tradition, but ultimately it is just an excuse to eat yummy Italian and get together with running buddies to throw around smack talk. Although the banter might help, the extra carbs won’t do much for your race result.
The idea behind carbohydrate loading is to make sure the glycogen content of your muscles is maximised. However, there’s only so much glycogen that your body can store and you can actually replenish these reserves simply by dropping your mileage back and carrying on eating a balanced diet (i.e. if you’re running 40 per cent of your peak mileage but eating the same, your body will have plenty of fuel).
How do I avoid going crazy now that I’m not running much?
Many first-time runners struggled to get going with their running at the start of the training cycle, but lo and behold, now they’re struggling to do the opposite by backing off the mileage for the taper. If this is you, welcome to your newfound addiction.
This is normal. Your body and mind have become accustomed to an activity (even if it once was seen as a mild form of torture) and now you’re telling it to do less of it. Couple this behavioural change with the internal wrestling of what can seem like backwards logic (running less in order to run more) and you can go a little crazy during the taper.
Aim to maintain your sanity by shifting your focus to a moderate amount of speed work and to active recovery (massage, yoga, baths, aqua jogging sessions and so on). Also, use this time to re-introduce yourself to your friends and family, now that you’ll be somewhat less of a running-induced social recluse.
This article is an entry by Hayden Shearman on his training blog at Stuff.co.nz (published16 October).