I’m coming to the end of my second week of a three week taper as I go into the Tokyo Marathon. Many runners dread the taper period for a variety of reasons (usually psychological), but I actually look forward to it after many weeks of intense training. The key, I believe, in successfully getting through the taper period is to realize that you really can’t improve in the final few weeks leading up to the marathon and the rest and recovery your body is receiving during the taper is critical for a peak performance come race day. I’ve heard it so many times, you are better off being 10% undertrained than 1% overtrained. Having run 17 marathons, I’ve come to appreciate this adage and through trial and error the benefits of good taper.
For a marathon, I normally begin to taper three weeks out. Here are some tips I’ve learned to help me get through the taper period.
1. Reduce your mileage about 25% every week from your peak training week, but keep the intensity in your runs the same. For example, if your normal weekly tempo run was 10 miles during peak training, reduce it to 7 or 8 miles (but keep close to the same pace) during the first week of your taper, then 5 or 6 miles the second week, and 3 miles the final week.
2. You’ll probably feel flat on some of your runs during the taper period. Don’t worry, this is normal, your body is in recovery mode so there are some physiological things going on. But believe me, if you did your taper properly, you’ll feel great on race day – especially with the adrenalin that will be pumping through your veins.
3. Self doubt may begin creeping in and you may be reconsidering your goals. This is where you’ll need to be mentally tough and realize that if you trained properly during the build up period, you’ll do just fine. After a few miles into the marathon, the butterflies in your stomach will fade away and then you just need to stick to your strategy. But you need to be realistic about your fitness level, don’t expect any miracles come race day – running will only give back what you put into it.
4. Try to relax and take it easy the last week. Keep your activity level low, especially the last couple days before the marathon and don’t fret too much about things you can’t control – this is not the time to pile on unneeded stress.
5. Nutrition during a taper is tricky, as you start to decrease the length of your runs you will be burning fewer calories. If you continue to eat the same volume of food, you could end up with unwanted weight gain. I think you want to try to balance you caloric intake with the energy you expend the first couple weeks of the taper and try not to gain too much weight, but it is probably inevitable that you’ll gain 2-4 lbs during the taper period. This may actually be beneficial since you are storing more glycogen and water, but you probably want to make sure you are not carrying more than a few extra pounds. The type of food you eat the week prior should be the same as when you were training. Any drastic changes the week or night before a race may not agree with your system and sub-optimize your race day performance.
6. Enjoy and have fun on race day – the vast majority of us are not making a living doing this – so there’s really no need to be overly serious about it all. The marathon is a tricky race with so many variables, so expect the unexpected, and just focus on the process and let the outcome take care of itself. And if the outcome isn’t what you wanted, then remember, there’s always your next marathon.