Running less in the weeks prior to a race is scientifically proven to lead to better performances. Known as tapering, this period of decreased training allows your mind and body time to recover from months of hard training so they are in prime condition come race-day.
Three weeks is the optimum amount of time to taper if you’re preparing for a marathon. There’s little you can do to make yourself fitter in this time – here are some basic guidelines to help you put in the miles without overdoing it:
Your final week of hard training. Aim to complete your last long run (18-20 miles) at the end of this week.
Your mileage should total half to two-thirds of your most intense training week. Your longest run should not exceed 10 miles, and your short weekday runs four miles. If your legs feel sluggish, a few quick strides should help shrug off the heaviness.
Keep all your runs shorter than four miles, and slower than your intended race pace. Two days before the race, don’t run at all, but the day before, jog two to four miles to release some of your pent-up energy.
For sub-marathon races, tapering for between three and seven days can be beneficial. During this time, cut your usual run distances in half, and if you do any speedwork, make it only a third of a usual session.
Many runners experience a renewed sense of fitness midway through the taper as their body draws strength from its imposed period of rest. No matter how good you feel, resist the urge to cram in extra miles or add high-intensity speed sessions to your training plan. Such sessions will only put extra strain on your body and hinder rather than help your race preparations.
As tempting as it might be to channel your energy into other sports, do so with caution. It’s best to avoid undertaking any activity that could leave your muscles feeling sore or vulnerable to injury.
Now is not the time to count calories – your body needs energy to repair muscle tissue damaged during training. Consider increasing your intake of protein, fruit and vegetables, and loading up on vitamin C to give your immune system a much-needed boost.
For the few days immediately prior to the race, try to get 60 to 70 per cent of your daily calorie intake from carbohydrate sources such as pasta, potatoes, rice and cereal. This will pack your muscles with glycogen and delay the point at which you ‘hit the wall’ during the race.
Keep your energy and fluid levels high by cutting down on caffeinated and alcoholic drinks and consuming plenty of water, especially during the week before race-day. You can tell whether you are adequately hydrated by checking the colour of your urine (it should be clear or pale yellow).
You’re likely to put on a few pounds during your taper but try to remember this is only temporary. Having your energy reserves at full capacity will help on race-day and you’ll have lost the extra weight by the time you reach the finish line.
It’s only natural that as you run less and race day approaches, your anxiety levels will rise. Don’t worry about losing your fitness – the core strength and endurance base you have built up over the preceding months will not disappear in the space of just a few weeks.
Minor twinges and aches in your legs, hips or back are a perfectly normal part of the body’s rejuvenation process. Treat them as a signal that your body is healing itself rather than cause for additional worry.
Reassure yourself that you are prepared for any eventuality by mentally rehearsing a variety of race-day scenarios, such as unexpected weather conditions, a misjudgement of pace or the recurrence of an injury.
As well as having a particular finish-time in mind, think about more general objectives such as finishing strong or simply enjoying yourself. Setting multiple goals means you won’t leave the race empty-handed.
Ultimately, you should finish your taper feeling calm, confident and in control. Reflect on all that you’ve achieved over the last few weeks and concentrate on how proud you’ll feel when you cross the finish line.