Even non-runners have heard of “marathon taper”, but do we know exactly why tapering before a big race is so important? What are the physiological benefits to your body? And how can you strike the perfect balance between recovery and maintaining fitness?
Why Is A Marathon Taper Important?
With something as big as a marathon, you simply can’t keep training right up to race day. Your body needs to rest, your legs need to recover, and your muscles need the chance to set up sufficient stores of glycogen.
A recent (2018) systematic review called “The Effects of Tapering on Performance in Elite Endurance Runners” (International Journal of Sports Science 2018) (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/322931606_The_Effects_of_Tapering_on_Performance_in_Elite_Endurance_Runners_A_Systematic_Review) reviewed nine relevant studies. It found that a taper which decreased training volume by 17.6-85% either improved VO2max or maintained it. 6 of the 9 studies found that tapering improved athletic performance (and only included studies showed to improve the performance, two studies didn’t find significant changes of performance and one study found reduces of performance.
In 2007, a meta-analysis of 27 studies looked at the effects of tapering on performance (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17762369). The conclusion of the meta-analysis was that the most effective strategy to maximise your race performance appears to be a 2 week taper, reducing training volume by 41-60%.
And an older (2003 study in the Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise called “Scientific bases for pre-competition tapering strategies” (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12840640) concluded that accumulated training fatigue was minimised without compromising adaptations by maintaining training intensity, and reducing training volume by 60-90%, and frequency (by no more than 20%). This study states that performance can be expected to improve by about 3% if a taper is done well. This is down to “positive changes in the cardiorespiratory, metabolic, haematological, hormonal, neuromuscular, and psychological status of the athletes”.
Imagine what an extra 3% performance would mean to your marathon time!
What Happens During A Taper?
But has anyone ever explained what happens at a physical level during those long, empty days of the pre-race taper?
The main aim of your marathon taper should be to bring down the accumulated fatigue of your training programme, not to boost your fitness or get any physiological adaptations. All the studies show that you can’t lose fitness during 2-3 weeks of tapering, but you can boost VO2 max and bring about positive changes in a number of physical and psychological states.
During a taper, your body gets the chance to return to normal after the demands of a tough - and long - training plan. It might feel as if your muscles are getting heavy and you’re losing some of your bounce. But bear in mind that lots is going on under the surface. Muscle damage gets repaired, and glycogen, hormones, enzymes, immune strength, and antioxidant levels are all returning to optimal ranges so your body is in the best position to stand at that start line.
How To Design Your Marathon Taper
Every marathon training plan should include a taper from 3 weeks out. That means that the final 21 days of your marathon plan must be noticeably different to your main training plan. If they’re not, you either need a new plan - or you need to get honest with yourself and take recovery seriously. Some runners (especially first time marathoners) feel anxious about taking so much time “off” before the race. It seems counter-intuitive to back off the mileage so far out from race day. But, as we’ve discussed, the marathon taper is crucial for your body and mind. In fact, it’s during the taper that you will reap the rewards of your training plan. So stop thinking of it as a rest, and start thinking of it as the critical final phase of your training. Even if it feels like a backwards step!
Design your own marathon taper by thinking about four things: your training, other activity levels, mindset, and nutrition. Let’s look at each one in turn.
3 Weeks Out
Your final long run should be 3 weeks before race day. Start your taper gradually by bringing down the volume from this point.
- you have competed your highest mileage week and your longest long run
- stick to your regular training schedule but decrease total milage by 20-25%
- take 2-3 miles off your midweek middle distance run
- apart from any “race pace” runs, do your training runs 1-2 minutes per mile slower than usual
- avoid hills, speed work, or any high intensity sessions which will batter your legs
- keep your regular activity levels but don’t suddenly take up another intense sport or exercise activity
- take care not to injure yourself doing any DIY or garden chores
- gentle walks can support recovery and give you time to work on mindset
- start thinking about any challenges which could crop up during the race and develop strategies for avoiding, overcoming, or coping with them
- mentally rehearse your strategies during training runs and in quiet time at home
- keep protein moderate to high in order to support muscle repair
- recovery drink Recover will help give your body the protein and carbs it needs, with useful extras like electrolytes and Vitamin C (https://projecte2.co.uk/products/recover-drink-powder-1-6kg)
- support your immune system with Vitamin C either from foods, from Recover (https://projecte2.co.uk/products/recover-drink-powder-1-6kg) or a simple vitamin supplement
- keep water and fluids as high as a normal training week
- don’t eat anything that will upset your stomach
2 Weeks Out
This is the point of a taper where people often struggle - it feels like a long time since you last did a decent run, but the race is still a fortnight away. Stay focused on your taper. This is where quality rest takes over from training.
- take your total mileage down to 50-65% of your highest mileage week
- keep all of your running slower than usual apart from a short race-pace section of a mid-distance run
- remember that your weekend long run is now only 1 week from race day so keep it short (75-90 minutes maximum time on your feet)
- decrease all excess activity that might hinder your recovery
- keep gentle walking in but don’t use it as a replacement for running
- consider getting a massage
- do extra stretching or soft-tissue work at home
- get lots of sleep
- set yourself A, B, and C goals for the race (with your C goal something you know you can achieve)
- check logistics like weather, driving routes, parking
- plan your race day including packing list, driving route, parking, supporters list, pre and post race nutrition
- don’t be tempted to alter your caloric intake just because mileage is lower
- the calories you eat this week will go to repairing muscle and replenishing glycogen stores
- don’t eat anything new or unusual
- practice your race day and pre race food
1 Week Out
It’s the week of the race, so your mileage will be way down. Doubts, anxiety, nerves, and perceived niggles might start to creep in. Keep yourself busy but give yourself plenty of time to rest up. Your job this week is to look after your body so it is recovered, fuelled up, and hydrated for the weekend!
- nothing longer than 45 minutes
- any run you do is just to keep things ticking over - not for training
- keep everything slower than race pace, apart from one small marathon-pace section of 2 miles in a 4 mile run
- a few strides (100m) can help reassure you that you haven’t lost the ability to run
- people usually do no running at all for the last 2-3 days
- if you must, go for a 2 mile jog the day before but be strict and keep it slow and short!
- reduce all excess activity, this is a week for resting
- don’t be tempted to suddenly redo the patio or paint the kitchen ceiling because you’re bored
- if in doubt, sleep or put your feet up
- build your confidence by repeating positive mantras that you can use in the race
- remember why you want to complete a marathon
- surround yourself by people who want you to do well
- keep yourself busy and stay organised
- try to minimise and manage stress
- do what you can t sleep well
- there’s no need to carb-load as such, but keep carbs high (the reduced activity will naturally turn this into a carb load)
- keep 60-70% of your total calories from carbohydrate, choosing sources you know digest well for you. The perfect excuse to snack on our Energy bars! (https://projecte2.co.uk/products/energy-bar-60g)
- keep fluids high and try to avoid alcohol
- consider cutting back on caffeine if you plan to use caffeine (or our Energy Gels - which contain 50mg caffeine https://projecte2.co.uk/products/energy-gel-plus-15-x-38g-cola-flavour) as a stimulant strategy for the race
- keep salt levels normal - your body needs sodium to deal with water intake and sweating during the race
- make sure your electrolyte levels are optimal - our Hydro drink is the ideal balance of carbohydrates, electrolytes, and coconut water (https://projecte2.co.uk/products/hydro-drink)
Good luck - and let us know how you get on! We’d love to hear your marathon stories.