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Understanding The Marathon Taper

Into the final few weeks of training towards Autumn marathons, it’s time to get tapering.


What is the Taper?

The taper refers to the practice of reducing exercise in the days just before an important race. Getting the taper correct is key to making the most of your training and the race itself.

What you can’t do is train hard up to the date of the race. For the marathon, the taper should last around 3-weeks.


A review on tapering published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise concluded: “the primary aim of the taper should be to minimise accumulated fatigue, rather than to attain additional physiological adaptations of fitness gains”.


The taper is a time to recover, so don’t blow all those weeks of excellent training.


When it starts? Long Runs?

The taper starts the day after the long run, 3-weeks before the marathon. This long-run will generally contain some marathon pace practice work and will probably be your highest weekly mileage week of training.


For London 2021, this last big Long Run falls on Sunday, 12th September. Your taper phase will start on Monday, 13th September.


As an idea, this is what your last 3 Long Runs might be:


12th September: 180 minutes Long Run; First 90 minutes Easy, Second 90 minutes at Marathon Pace

19th September: 120 minutes Long Run; Pick up middle 90 minutes to Marathon Pace

26th September: 70 minutes Long Run; Pick up middle 50 minutes to Marathon Pace


3 weeks to go

For London 2021, this begins on Monday 13th September.


This is when the taper begins, and your training starts to wind down.


Maintain the routine of your training, but reducing the volume to about 75% of its maximum. Your body likes a rhythm and routine. If you can stick to that, then you will tick along nicely.


If you usually do an interval session on a Tuesday, stick with it but reduce the overall volume of the session.


Another area you want to think about is injury prevention, keep an eye out for any niggles and look to get a good sports massage to help with recovery


You should have your pre-race day routine sorted out now, but if you don’t, get that sorted over your subsequent long runs.


Practice starting your long run at the same time as your race start.


Have the breakfast you plan on having when you will be able to have it on race day.


Take gels with you on the run to make sure you are staying loaded with energy, and take them at the same internals you’ll be having during the marathon. As a general rule, we’d suggest you take your first gel after the first 40-45 mins of your run and every 30-40 mins or so after that – if you’ve not already been practising taking gels and the timings during your long runs, then you need to start doing this now.


2 weeks to go until race day

For London 2021, this begins on Monday 20th September.


We’re in a position of 2 weeks to go before race day, and we’re in a similar place to last week. However, we will reduce the volume of training further, to around 50% of its maximum.


Now is not the time to play catch up. Any physiological change that occurs during this time will be minimal, and now it’s imperative to aim to maintain and protect what you’ve got.


You might start to feel more energised during this time as you cut back on your training, take time to rest up and relax and continue to maintain your levels of nutrition.


Stay mentally positive, don’t focus too much on the race; it should all be carrying along nicely.


The Final Week

For London 2021, this begins on Monday 27th September.


One week to go before your marathon, and it becomes a nervy time. It's a time that’s more of a mental than a physical game.


Mentally you’ll start to question if you can do this. That's normal. Try and be positive. Look back at your training diary and all those key sessions you’ve run. Remind yourself you can do it.


Don’t go out and run hard at any point just to prove to yourself you can still run. Take the extra rest days as they come.


Maintain your training routine but reducing the volume can help manage some of that pre-race anxiety. You still want to be doing some faster running. If you've been doing threshold sessions, keep them in but reduce the length of them.


You can mess your marathon up this week by overdoing it. There are no fitness gains to be made.


You want to be looking at the weather forecast as this helps to get you thinking about race day conditions, whether you need to refine your race strategy and the kit you’re going to use. If it’s going to be 26 degrees, you might have to run a bit slower on race day. However, I imagine we won't be getting that this October.


Start to graze on carbohydrates a bit more but don’t overdo it and have mountains of pasta. Just add a little more than you would usually have. Also, it’s essential to stay hydrated, but again don’t overdo it by drinking gallons of water and energy drinks.


It’s easy to end up comfort eating or drinking because you have more time on your hands. Avoid this!


This week is not the time to start doing odd jobs around the house that you might have been putting off for a while. There’ll be time to do these jobs after the race.


Stay positive and become mentally and physically energised for race day on Sunday.


Dangers of The Taper

The taper is such a challenging time, and there will be moments where you start to feel stale.


It’s is possible to over taper. To slow down to the point that body does almost shut down. This happened to me one year, and I was just not ready for race day.


When racing, I would give myself a more active taper. Dropping down the volume less than suggested here. Yet, I’ve coached runners who would take the whole week off before the marathon, and end up feeling great on the day.


It’s a very personal experience, and as you do more races and tapering, you’ll find out what works best for you.


A few rules to a good taper:

  1. Don't play catch up. Don’t fit in an extra session that you may have missed. This will just be of detriment to your overall training. You are where you are at this point.

  2. Eat well and stay hydrated. Don’t diet during the taper; eat well and aim to keep nicely hydrated at all times.

  3. Chill out and catch some Zzz's. Rest up as much as possible, get in some early nights and even have a nap if you can during the day. It’s vital to relax and recover during the taper.

  4. Be prepared. Make sure you’ve got all your kit ready and travel plans arranged. Your pre-race evening meal and breakfast are organised. Be prepared so that you’re on autopilot on race day and don’t have anything to worry you.