I’m training for my fifth marathon and looking to improve my performance. I need help on my tapering phase. I typically go into the race with a one-week taper, and it caught up with me in my last marathon. I ran a personal worst and had a hard time finishing. Do you have any tips? Why is tapering so hard? Thank you. Lynn
You’re right, tapering is quite the challenge. This is likely due to the increase of race-day nerves combined with the slow and gradual decline in mileage. When you’re training for a marathon, the fear is under control because you're actively preparing for the race. But as you take away the security that training provides, the fear can grow and so too can the negative or fear-based mind chatter that can cause you to make the four most common tapering mistakes.
Playing long-run catch-up
Whether an injury or life detour got in your way of getting in all your planned long runs, squeezing a long run in the weekend or two before your target race can leave you fatigued on race day with your best efforts already exerted. It appeases your mind but can negatively affect your performance. It’s better to go into the race with a shorter long run or fewer long runs than to cram them in last-minute to reach the magic number of long runs on paper.
Jumping up in long-run mileage
It can be tempting to jump up in miles too dramatically (ex: from 16 to 20 miles) in the final phases of training to reach the magic number (20) but when you do, you risk injury, fatigue and a suffer-fest. There’s nothing worse than to go into the marathon just after a humbling long run. It can really mess with your mind and your body. It’s not about reaching 20 miles; it’s about toeing the line as strong and recovered as possible in that given season. One of my best marathons was done on one 16-miler. The foundation of training is more valuable than one or two long runs.
Trying anything new
By far this is the number one way most marathoners get themselves into trouble during race week. Nerves kick in and everyday easy decisions like which shoe to put on your foot first become impossible to answer. I once sat for 30 minutes trying to decide which pants to wear to an expo! It’s a form of brain freeze that can cause you to veer off your tried and true path of logistics and wear new shoes, eat spicy new cuisines, or think that painting the house race week is a good idea (true story). When you start to question yourself, know that it is the nervous gremlin and breathe through it. Stick to what you know and what you’ve trained with, and let the urge to try anything new pass right by you.
That is, going into the marathon without any reduction in mileage or intensity. It can be done, but more often than not you end up with a less-than optimal marathon performance and burnout or injuries to boot. There are some runners that can train like this, but for the vast majority, it leaves you performing at less than your best.
There isn’t one formula for tapering that works for every runner. Younger runners may do well with a two to three week taper while mature athletes require three to four. The general rule is to reduce the volume of mileage first and then the intensity along with it. And race week is all about keeping your legs loose and your mind busy.
One example of a race-week taper might look like this:
Monday 30-40 minutes easy – or easy with four to six 30-second pick ups
Tuesday 30 minutes of cross-training (cycling, swimming – no strength)
Wednesday 30 minutes easy run – or with pick ups
Friday 20-30 minutes easy or with pick ups
Tapering is to marathoning as sleeping is to wellness. They are both important for optimal life performance.
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