How to Tackle the Taper
Coach Martin Yelling is here to let you know how to handle one of the most important parts of your marathon prep: the taper. Follow Martin on Twitter: @myelling
Even if you’ve done all the training, diligently racked up the miles, banked all of your long runs, and ticked all of the boxes in terms of your pacing, fuelling, organisation and planning why is it that in the final few weeks before your big race you start to experience doubt, uncertainty, lethargy and panic! This is known as taper madness and it’s really common.
As the big day approaches, you should be doing the following:
- Your training should be reducing not increasing
- You should be feeling fresher, less tired and more energised, not battered and broken with aches and pains
- You should be feeling more confident, committed and less anxious, not worried, apprehensive and concerned
- You should be feeling excited, motivated, happy, and ready for the challenge, not lethargic, twitchy and grumpy!
If reading the above has filled you with panic as you’re tired, niggly and short tempered; if you feel like you need to run away and hide when anyone mentions the words marathon, London, finish time, pace or wall then it’s time to put those feelings of tapering madness to bed.
Reassure yourself that you’re in control, that you can trust the training you’ve done and that you’re ready to tackle the final few weeks of your Virgin Money London Marathon preparation confident, competent, courageous and committed!
Let’s get a few things straight about the taper right here and right now: you don’t lose all the training benefits by doing less running the closer the marathon gets. You won’t lose any of the fitness you have gained over the past few months by being sensible and doing less as the race draws closer. Fitness adaptations take time. The benefits of regular, appropriate and progressive training are realised in fitness and form weeks and months after the actual training has been completed. Although fitness takes a while to build up, it also takes a while to lose (although not as long). By staying active during your taper, including the same frequency of runs, including a little intensity but dropping the duration, you maintain your fitness and marathon stamina whilst also ensuring you’re fully refreshed and recovered to hit the big day.
There is no single right way to taper.
Despite the best words of wisdom, advice and expert guidance, what works for you might not work for others. Feeling right on Race Day is more about personal trial and retrial around what you know helps make you feel recovered, motivated, energised and up for it. Some folk like to do very little running the week before the race, others like to keep their running going. Get the basics right and tweak the personal specifics to nail your taper.
Tapering basics involve reducing the volume (how long you run) and the intensity (how fast you run) in the weeks leading up to the race while maintaining similar frequency (how often you run). It also involves effective personal nutrition, rest and developing mental coping strategies to help you reach your best when it matters. The goal of your taper is to maintain your fitness, revitalise your muscles and reach physical and mental peak on Race Day –without you losing the plot as Race Day draws closer.
It’s normal to experience a few wobbles, weaknesses and doubts
Stay calm people! It’s common for marathon training to not go to plan and for runners to feel like they should have done more than they have, to question their fitness and their sanity! If you are having a few worries, concerns, or illness or injury has hampered your progress and you are really starting to doubt your ability to complete the 26.2 miles then your choices as Race Day looms are really important.
The likelihood is that you’re just having a few last-minute jitters and the miles you’ve covered (although these might not be as many as you’d have liked) will be sufficient to prepare you for tackling the marathon. If you’ve been injured or ill and have missed a few weeks training (but are healed and healthy now) then you’ll already be fresh and so the need to back off your training sharply isn't so important.
You’ll run a better marathon slightly under-prepared and fresh than you will slightly over-prepared and fatigued. Be confident you’ve done all you can.
If you’re still not sure, then reconsider your expectations and lower your goals accordingly. Be happy with the revised goal you’ve set yourself and keep running. Think very carefully before dropping out altogether before you even reach the Start Line. Typically, around 99 per cent of Virgin Money London Marathon runners make the Finish Line if they make the Start Line. So, be kind to yourself and get the remaining runs until Race Day completed.
How to get your taper terribly wrong and perfectly right
Chuck in loads of extra training. You panic that you simply haven’t done enough training and decide that packing extra miles into your final few weeks is a good idea. You simply can’t squeeze marathon training into the last two weeks. It’s all too easy at this stage to make the classic mistake of doubting the training you’ve done to reach this point, think you haven’t done enough miles, panic and run more in the final weeks than you’ve run in the past three months. This won’t work.
A great taper will see you run smart. Run less to achieve more when it matters. Keep running but recognise that less is more. This doesn't mean do nothing! It means maintaining the frequency of your running routine but dropping the volume. Include some shorter workouts and some marathon-paced efforts, but make sure as the race draws closer you feel fresh and recovered and not tired.
If you normally run three or four times a week, keep that regular routine going right up until race week but run for a shorter duration and cut the volume of your individual workouts but also your weekly total. After you’ve completed your final long run with around three weeks to go, it’s time to drop the distance each week. Running long (more than 75 minutes) the week before the race will only serve to tire you out before you’ve even started your race.
Pushing on through injury or illness. It’s easy to think that the most important thing to do at this time is to ramp things up or play catch-up, ignoring signs and symptoms that could be a game changer. An injury or illness at this stage could spell disaster and if it’s serious enough could stop you from participating at all.
Listen to your body. If you’re tired, restless, aching, hurting, unhappy, sore, fatigued, frustrated, generally narked off with the whole thing just back it off. Take your foot off the marathon throttle and calm down. Ease the pressure on yourself now before it’s too late and you break. Doing less in the final few weeks is considerably better for your marathon success than doing too much and jeopardising your start – let alone your finish.
Neglect your headspace and ignore your mental game. All of the physical training you’ve diligently done in the previous few months can be relatively insignificant on the day of the marathon if you lose your head and your mind isn’t up for the challenge.
Refine your armoury. Use your running training in the final few weeks to help you to pay attention to, raise your awareness of and refine the psychological strategies that work for you to help you keep putting one foot in front of the other in the toughest moments of the marathon.
Five things to try in taper training to strengthen your race day mental game
- See your future self. What do you want to feel like when you’ve completed the race? When you say ‘I completed the Virgin Money London Marathon’ how will that make you feel? It will be amazing, right? You’ll glow, feel inspired and feel proud. See your future self and hold on to those feelings.
- Think back and boost your self-esteem. Feel good about what you’ve done to get to the start line and how far you’ve come. Reflect on previous training and remind yourself how worthwhile it’s all been. All the hard work you’ve banked has helped you run faster, feel better and get ready for race day. That hard work doesn't leave you during the race.
- Think about your personal heroes. Think about people who inspire and motivate you to run and then remember that there is always someone, somewhere who is motivated by your running and what you have, and will, achieve. Be the inspiration for others and use your own inspiring people to help you keep moving forwards. Practice in your mind covering each of the final five miles with five different people in your mind who have helped you on your journey. A single mile for each person.
- Get a personal mantra. Develop a short, positive motivational saying that you can repeat to yourself over and over again in your head to help you reach the finish. For example: I can, I will, I am going to do this.
- Remind yourself of your personal reasons for running. What is it that gives you real strength and courage? What has got you off the sofa to train and out of bed on those early mornings? Keep this reason close to your heart and be ready to use it on Race Day. It’s the thing that you can draw out at your darkest moments to energise you to keep going.
Always remember: you've got this.