Over the last few months your training should have been gradually getting harder, you should have been running more and more miles, both your midweek and long runs. As you have now completed, or about to complete your longest week and your longest run of your training, you may well be thinking about the taper.
What Is Tapering?
A taper is a reduction in training intensity before a major race or event to give the body time to recover and adapt to reach a peak in performance. Simply put, you are going to reduce mileage for the last couple of weeks before your marathon so that you don’t have tired muscles when you start your race.
As your training builds, your fitness will increase with your increase in mileage. However, as your training builds you will also notice your fatigue (tiredness) levels increase. As you can see from the example graph below, I coach people to have cutback weeks every 3-4 weeks. This is to lessen the ongoing fatigue that runners feel during training. It also helps your body adapt and recovery, lessening injury, keeping motivation to train, and helping you to push harder and further in the next few weeks. For those who use training plans without cutback weeks, the line of fatigue (black on the graph) will just increase and increase until you are just knackered and lose the motivation and energy to train, or suffer an overtraining injury. By cutting back every now and then you lessen the fatigue and can push harder next week.
- Fitness builds as mileage builds, but so does fatigue
- Cutback weeks reduce fatigue
- Peaking (Taper) phase reduces fitness a little but fatigue by a lot, meaning you feel fresh on race day
And this is where the taper really comes in. I like to call it a peaking phase as that sounds more positive to most runners, especially those going for a certain time or personal best. You are reducing your mileage over the course of usually the final 3 weeks. The taper period will vary from 2-3 weeks depending on the mileage you’ve been doing, how hard the weeks between 10-14 have been (if you have had a week out for any reason a 2-week taper will be better) and how your body reacts to higher mileage. For the purpose of this blog I’ll use a 3-week taper.
Week 13 will be your highest mileage week. You will be doing your longest or hardest long run at the end of your hardest block of training. You should feel tired and ready for lower mileage. That is a good sign because it means that you have loaded your body with fatigue which means you will create fitness adaptations with less mileage.
If you are having a 3-week taper you will start to lose a little fitness before race day. However, it is not really noticeable (only really from physiological testing) and you will actually feel fitter on race day due to the reduction of fatigue. As you can see in the graph your fatigue levels drop dramatically in the final two weeks. The bigger the gap between fitness and fatigue the better you will feel.
How to Taper
Week 14 should contain roughly 65% of the mileage of week 13. As an example, if you ran 50 miles in week 13 you want to run roughly 33 miles in week 14. I would usually say the long run in week 14 should be between 14 miles for less experienced runners to 16 miles for people on higher mileage. Include some miles at your race pace to get used to it during a longer run. Practice your pre-race breakfast and the fuel you will consume during your marathon.
Week 15 should see your mileage total being roughly half of your longest week (13). This means that there is not a big reduction from week 14 and it mainly comes from the longer run, which will vary from 8-10 miles for less experienced runners to 10-12 miles for those coming from higher mileage. Include some miles at your race pace to get used to it. Practice your pre-race breakfast and the fuel you will consume during your marathon.
Week 16 (race week) is where the most noticeable change comes in. You want to be at roughly 25% of the mileage from week 13 (this doesn’t include race day miles), so from 50 miles a week you will be running around 12 miles only. A typical race week for people I coach will be along the lines of:
Monday – Rest
Tuesday – 5 miles (1m steady, 3m at race pace, 1m very easy)
Wednesday – Rest
Thursday – 4 miles (1m steady, 2m at race pace, 1m very easy)
Friday – Rest
Saturday – 3 miles (1m steady, 1m at race pace, 1m very easy). Run in race kit
Sunday – 26.2 miles at race pace!
You will notice that you are still running regularly in this final week. Doing nothing just gets your legs conditioned to doing nothing. You want to still be running in that final week, but from previously running far longer than these distances, plus the rest days in between, your legs should start to feel more rested and more bouncy as the week goes on.
The second thing to note is that there is still a certain amount of intensity in your runs. There are known neuromuscular connections that are built by practicing race pace. In the final two weeks before your race, you should include some amount of race pace miles in each run. This means that on race day you are used to how this pace feels and more importantly, it feels normal. People in the past have complained about either doing nothing in the final week, or running very easily and then on race day their race pace feels really hard. That is just a lack of practice.
Tapering after compromised training
I’m writing this in September 2020, 4 weeks before the Virtual London Marathon. This year has been very disjointed with the spring cancellation of marathons. Some people expected the autumn rescheduled events to be cancelled, some have lost motivation with the uncertainty surrounding the lack of definite events, some have been homeschooling, been injured, ill or just couldn’t be bothered. For those, depending on how your recent weekly mileage has been you may want to consider the following.
If you have not trained much in the last few months and still need to build mileage for fitness or confidence reasons, you can have a 2-week taper. If so, look above at the week 15 information but reduce mileage by 50% of your week 14. Then continue week 16 as described above. The is known as an aggressive taper and something similar will also be used by some more experienced runners who find a 3-week taper doesn’t work for them.
It is important that your longest run is no closer to race day than 14 days. You may struggle to reduce your fatigue levels enough if your long run is 7-10 days prior to race day. You also do not get any physiological benefits in the last 10-14 days, you just risk starting with tired legs.
Make sure that you use the extra time in the last week to prepare your race kit, get your race day plans finalised (if you haven’t already) and prepare your carb-loading (another blog to follow on that).
Think of your taper as the icing on your cake. The taper won’t work without the training base and the training base can be compromised without a well thought out and executed taper. Do it right and everything will be in place for you to hit your targets on race day.
Stay positive, be confident and trust in your training.
I hope that you can take something away from this blog. I would love to hear your thoughts and I’ve set up a very supportive Facebook Community where like-minded people can share their experiences of life and exercising. Please feel free to join and invite others you know who may be interested.
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