Ask the Experts: Taper and Race Week with Sam Murphy

Catch the highlights from Friday's lunchtime debate, when ASICS Target 26.2 coach Sam Murphy answered your questions about the final stage of marathon training live in the forums



sam murphy, paris marathon, asics, asics target 26.2

Sam is one of the UK's leading fitness experts, and a keen runner. She has completed 15 marathons (with a PB of 3:22) and the Himalayan 100 Mile Race among numerous others.

In addition to her first class degree in Sport and Exercise Science, Sam is a level 2 UKA running coach and a tutor for England Athletics. She has also written seven books which have been published internationally, including Run for Life: The Real Woman's Guide to Running, and Marathon and Half Marathon: From Start to Finish.

This spring, she joins us as one of the ASICS Target 26.2 coaches, working with Rosie, Emma and Craig as they look ahead to the Paris Marathon on April 15.

Read the whole forum debate.

Pick up more training tips and exclusive spring marathon podcasts at our ASICS Target 26.2 hub.

Q. My hamstrings are feeling a little tight after a hard run in the Wilmslow Half Marathon at the weekend, and of course after some extensive training. What would you recommend over the next three weeks to loosen them? I've booked a physio appointment for some deep tissue massage, but I’m not sure what I should do in terms of running or other exercise. Dan Ellingworth

A. Hopefully the taper will help ease out your hamstrings a bit, with the reduced volume of training allowing more recovery and rest. The deep tissue massage sounds ideal; it might be good to do a couple of those (but not too close to race day).

Make sure you stretch your lower back too – hamstring tightness is often accompanied by or related to lower back tightness. Finally, I recommend stretching your hamstrings with the leg both bent and then straight. I find that a slightly bent knee helps get to the belly of the muscle, rather than just pulling on the attachment points.

Q. I'm trying to get fixed in my head an easy-to-remember formula for how close to a marathon you should or shouldn’t race. My understanding was that anything within the last month of training should be pace practice or less - is that about right? Sleepy Bear

A. I would certainly agree with this in terms of longer races such as 10 milers, half-marathons and longer, but I think you could usefully race a 5K or 10K in the final four weeks (maybe the 10K four weeks out or a 5K 2-3 weeks out –  but not both!)

These shorter distances require less recovery and can help you sharpen up. I think the big mistake people make is racing half-marathons in the final fortnight, doing really well and getting a real confidence boost, only to find they’ve left their performance out on the road come the big race day.

Q. Most training guides recommend cutting the mileage back 75 per cent in the first week of the taper, 50 per cent in the second week and 25 per cent in the third week (or thereabouts). Is this the advice you would give? I have heard other people advocating 50 per cent in the first week, 75 per cent in the second week and 25 per cent in the third week. The rationale is that the first week allows for a lot of recovery, the second week you ramp it up a bit to stop your legs getting stale, then the third week is major recovery time. What do you think? 15West

A. The annoying thing about tapers is that different things work for different people - so it’s a matter of trial and error. Studies have found benefits with a reduced volume of anywhere from 30 to 90 per cent of peak mileage!

If you want a guideline for a three-week taper, I would recommend cutting volume by around a third of your peak mileage the first week, to a half of peak mileage in the second week and cutting that in half again on the final week.

Doing it bit by bit like this is called a stepped taper. Some people prefer to just cut volume by approximately 30 per cent and remain there for the duration of the taper. I’m not convinced by the other strategy you mention with the middle week’s mileage going up again!

Q. I've been following the sub-4:30 plan for the VLM (my first marathon) and it's going pretty well so far. I've been running my mid-week runs of between 5-7 miles comfortably at 8:30-8:45 pace and my long runs (14, 16, 18.5 and 20 miles) between 9:00-9:30 pace. Would you recommend that I drop down to 10:00 mile pace for the marathon itself, so that I have some energy left for the last six miles, or do you think I should feel fresh enough from the taper to be able to go a little faster? KatyB

A. I would recommend setting your goal race pace a little slower than your training run pace – perhaps between 9:45-10 min/mile. Have you done any half-marathons or other long races, which you can use to get a marathon time prediction?

If so, I’d also factor this information in when determining the right pace to run on the day. It’s also worth pointing out that if you start out comfortably, you always have the option of speeding up later on in the race if you still feel good. If you start out at your 9-9:30 pace, you risk blowing up and having to slow down in the second half, which is demoralising and tough work. Good luck!

Q. I’ve had a bit of a nightmare training for the Paris Marathon. Anterior knee pain and four weeks of physio knocked out my month of high distance training and I’m only getting back into the swing of it now. With two weeks left to go I have completed a 20-mile run at a low pace, but I can't do any speedwork and now I'm struggling with some minor hip flexor pain.

What would be your advice for the next two weeks to make sure I get to the start and finish line in one piece? Chrissy32

A. Sorry to hear about your marathon training troubles. I think your strategy now depends a little on what you want to achieve with your marathon. If you just want to 'get round', then I'd recommend using a walk-run strategy with a fixed time period.

For example, it could be walking for three minutes after every mile marker, or walking for the last two minutes of every 10. You would do this right from the beginning, not just when you feel knackered

If you're still concerned about getting a specific time, then I'd consider withdrawing and doing a race later in the season when you have more opportunity to train without being hampered by injury. It's an awful situation to be in (I've been there - twice!) but so is running through pain and discomfort and then ending up not being able to run for weeks afterwards.

Assuming you do decide to run, I'd just maintain low volume, easy-paced training over the final two weeks. Even though training hasn't gone to plan, you still need to taper. Any training sessions you do now won't actually improve your fitness, they'll just maintain it, so don't try to make up for lost time. Best of luck.

Chrissy32: Thank you Sam, much appreciated. I am committed to at least attempting to get round but have quite sensibly thrown my time goal out the window (pace bands and watches will be left at home). Low volume, easy pace - sounds good to me

Q. Last year I did my first (and only) marathon in Nottingham. Training went okay, just a few niggles here and there, but I did find my long runs over 18 miles on Sunday's were getting harder each week, to the point I was barely running the last couple of miles. I thought that like my first half-marathons that the taper would help refresh me when the big day came.

I read lots of advice on the forums and on RW about keeping an even pace in the marathon. I was aiming for 3:45 and used the Ultimate Training Plan, my half-marathon PB at the time was 1:41.

With this in mind, I set out quite slowly (9 min/miles for the first two miles) and progressed to 8 min/mile to 8:30 min/mile depending on whether I was going up or down hill.

I hit the halfway point at 1:50, but something very strange happened that has never happened to me before, and I got strange cramps in my feet at mile 14. I stretched these out but I couldn’t regain a decent pace. By mile 18 I was at 10 min/mile and by 20 miles I had to start a walk/run strategy to get me to the finish in 4:24. I was gutted to say the least.

I drank mainly water but I did have some Lucozade at the first two stations (miles 3 and 6) but I found the taste not to my liking (I used Powerade in training), so I used gels instead with water.

Do I accept that I am not a full marathon runner and stick to half-marathons (which I improved my PB in to 1:39 six weeks after the Nottingham marathon), or is there something I could be doing differently? CraigReed79

A. No, I certainly wouldn't rule out another marathon based on your previous experience!

A few thoughts: the number of long runs you did. In my experience as a coach and runner who isn't knocking out sub 2:45 marathons, doing a long run every weekend is too much. I find it just accumulates fatigue and it sounds as if this was your experience.

So instead of getting the benefits of improved fitness and stamina from your long runs, you were just getting increasingly fatigued and exhausted, week on week and weren't really reaping the benefits of your training. I'd also be interested to know what pace you did the long runs at - it may have been a bit too fast.

As far as the race is concerned, you could well have hit the start line not fully recovered from training (there are some pretty long runs in that taper, I think!) Also, hitting 8 min/miles in the first half was a bit too quick – sub-3:30 pace - and you just can't afford to go too quick in the first half of a marathon.

I wouldn't get too concerned about the drinking/carbs issue. As long as you were getting some carbs and fluid on board regularly, it's unlikely this had anything to do with your foot cramps - there’s not much evidence to link dehydration with muscle cramp - only anecdotal. I would guess it was just a 'weak link' in your chain as fatigue started to set in.

So there’s lots to think about - and onwards and upwards for the next one!

CraigReed79: Thanks for your response. It's been niggling me as to why it went so wrong!

Looking over my notes and Garmin, I did reduce some miles from the schedule (week 12 Wed run from seven miles to six miles and long run 21 miles to 20 miles; week 13 long run 20 miles to 17.5 miles; week 14 long 18 miles to 12 miles; week 15 long run 12 miles to 10 miles) as I was feeling wiped out at that point.

My long run average paces were:

18m 9:18min/mile

15m 9:03min/mile (I dropped down due to a slight niggle in my knee that week)

18m 8:58min/mile

20m 9:27min/mile

20m 9:36min/mile

17.5m 9:45min/mile

I think looking back at that, I should have taken a recovery week after the second 20-mile run, replaced 17.5 miles with a 20-miler, and then tapered.

I ran the race with a workmate who is slightly slower than me for half-marathons and he left me at halfway (he finished in 3:48 - but he didn't follow any sort of conventional training programme and trained by mainly running to-and-from work eight miles each way and the occasional long slow run; he did one 18m and one 20m and a couple of 15m), that's why the pacing didn't concern me as much. This is my Garmin (http://connect.garmin.com/activity/113544216) - not pretty reading, and I didn't set off as slow as I thought or had planned!

Q. There’s a lot of info around about tapering and reducing the long run, but I'm assuming you need to keep some speed sessions to maintain cardiovascular fitness?

Do you just do them for less or should most sessions now be practising marathon pace?

I know from past experience when I've had to stop running because of injury, in a couple of weeks my fitness levels drop quite quickly. What's the best way of maintaining this while allowing for good recovery and reducing injury risk? Susiebuzz

A. Great question Susie! It's really important to maintain intensity during the taper, so you should maintain the pace (or thereabouts) of your pre-taper speedwork and tempo training but just reduce the volume.

For example, if you were doing 10 x 400m you might reduce it to 6 x 400 - if you were doing 6 x 1000m, you might do 3-4 x 1000m. The closer you are to the race, the more you reduce the volume. And I wouldn't do anything faster than tempo pace beyond the Tuesday of race week. Adding a few short-ish strides to the end of one or two sessions in that final week is another way of maintaining leg speed without overdoing things.

Q. I'm running the London Marathon next month (my first marathon) and I'm worried about how much to taper my training in the remaining three weeks.

I've had a mixed period of training. I've been running 3/4 times a week since January and I’m of reasonably good fitness levels generally.

During my training I sustained a stress fracture to my foot and had to take two weeks off. Due to that break I fell behind with my long runs and the furthest I've managed in training since is 18 miles.

Is it worth just carrying on training to get up to the full distance or should I taper to save my legs for the day? Andy Halls

A. I am glad you have asked me this, so I can save you trying to kill yourself before race day! No, do not try to carry on to full distance. You've done a great job of getting to 18 miles, despite the injury, so one final long run (you could repeat 18 miles, or go a bit less) this weekend and then you begin your taper.

A couple of caveats: If you did the 18 miles ages ago, then I'd make this weekend's long run less than 18 miles.

Are you sure your foot is now okay? Two weeks is not long for a stress fracture to heal.

Andy Halls: Thanks for the response. I’m doing it for charity, so it got to the point where I had too much money pledged to pull out and disappoint people - so I just powered through on a sore foot.

It's not fully healed, but it's giving me a lot less grief than when I first did the injury.

I'll do another 18 mile run this weekend then - and then reduce over the next few weeks.Thanks for your advice!

On the next page: Choosing a race target, how to race with injuries and other tips from coach Sam Murphy.


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Discuss this article

Hi, I'm taking part in an endurance walking event 3 weeks prior to my first marathon. It's the baggies monster challenge, basically cycling 30 miles followed by a 42 mile hike. What advice do you have for the 3 weeks I between? Thanks
Posted: 04/04/2012 at 12:31

Hello,

I am having a problem with a heel injury (Planatar)  and am hoping to run in the M.K. Marathon at the end of the month--can you suggest a speedy cure- I haven't run or trained for the past six weeks....

 Mike


Posted: 04/04/2012 at 19:29

Hi I'm having a niggle with my knee. It crackles when I bend and bit achey.

I can run on it and it feels better when I've run about 2 miles.

But I can feel it even when I'm walking.

Any suggestions? 


Posted: 06/04/2012 at 09:10

Hi Danny, Michael and supermouse,

I suggest you get in touch with Sam (and physio Sarah if need be) on the ASICS Target 26.2 forum threads - you can find them here:

Alice


Posted: 10/04/2012 at 16:51

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