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Marathon training: The Taper

London MarathonThe landmarks of London spur you on throughout the city's marathon route

The London Marathon is looming large in runners’ diaries. If you’re not heading to the capital, maybe the Stirling Scottish, Shakespeare, or Belfast Marathons are right in front of you.

Opinions will vary as to which is the best 26.2mile event in the UK, but London is certainly the biggest. More than 30,000 runners will take to the starting line and plough past the Cutty Sark, Tower Bridge, Canary Wharf and the London Eye before the final push past Big Ben.

Hopefully, training has gone to plan. If not, it may not be cause for concern; in my experience, marathon training is not marathon training without at least one hiccup along the way. Tight glutes, blisters and existential doubt are common afflictions after 12-plus weeks of big miles.

You’ve put in the big numbers, and one last big run on Sunday should see you enter the final phase of your training: The Taper.

What is The Taper?

Tapering describes the final physical preparations for an endurance race.

You decrease the amount of effort you put in during training and, as a result, reach peak fitness and freshness when the race starts.

For a marathon, it is generally recommended to start the taper three weeks before race date. That means that you will gradually reduce the length of your longest runs and the intensity of your intervals sessions.

Studies have shown that runners who taper well before a marathon gain an advantage of about three per cent. It sounds like small change but if you’re aiming for a run of 3hrs 20mins, it is a saving of six minutes and a run of 5hrs will bring a saving of nine minutes.

What tapering isn’t

The Taper is most certainly not an excuse to stop all exercise and eat what you want. Above all, it is vital that you do not switch off during this period.

Three weeks is a long time and if you stop completely, chances are that you will enter race day a kilogramme heavier and considerably less flexible than before.

What you do during these three weeks will be as important as any of the other preparation you have completed. Temptation will come your way, but you must keep the goal in sight and develop an iron will.

Marathon runners

How should I taper?

Assuming your last long run of about 20miles is on Sunday, the taper starts on the Monday. It is important to make this gradual.

Reduce your training load by about 20 per cent. This means all your runs should be reduced in length, speed and intensity and will give your muscles the best possible chance of a full recovery before race day.

The Taper: Week One

The first week should end with a long run of 12 to 15 miles, but it is important to keep this at the same pace as the 20miles completed seven days earlier.

Going faster up negates the positive effect of the tapering and, as a result, you will get to race day feeling less fresh.

The Taper: Week Two

The second week should see a drop of a further 20 per cent in terms of distance from week one, and almost every mile you run should be about a minute and a half per mile (one minute per kilometre) slower than your target pace for the marathon.

Factor in two runs of miles, both of which should be completed at marathon race pace. We don’t want your legs to forget how fast they should be running!

The Taper: Week Three

The final week is where the big rest comes in. You should not complete any runs longer than four miles and again plan for the slower pace other than a single two mile run at goal pace three days before.

Don’t run at all in the last two days before the event. Just prepare yourself mentally and congratulate yourself on a job well done.

What are the downsides to tapering?

Like everything in marathon training it will be a challenge. Your brain will start to worry that you are losing condition, the pollen-induced sneeze will be interpreted as the onset of flu, and, robbed of the exercise you have done for the previous few months, you will feel unsettled and jittery.

Hang in there. Everyone feels the same and you will benefit so much.

Immune system boosting supplements like Vitamin C will help quell nagging doubts about health, and maintaining a strong diet full of good protein and fresh vegetables can only be a good thing.

You will be tempted to have that glass of wine as you don’t have a long run in the morning, and those chocolates look like they would make you feel better.

It is important to remember that the taper isn’t a treat, it is a key part of training. The treat comes after the race when you have matched all your goals and can switch off with a smile on your face.

Malcolm Bradbrook
the authorMalcolm Bradbrook
Senior Editor
Malcolm Bradbrook is a fitness journalist who competes, in a very mediocre way, in triathlon and running events. He loves running, hates spending money, and could have been a contender (maybe).

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