Tapering while training for a marathon is the process of reducing your training load in the final weeks before the event.
It’s a tried, tested, and trusted training technique that reduces injury, boosts energy levels, and sets you up to peak on race day.
Running a bit less sounds easy, but it can become a source of significant frustration for the runner.
Until now, you’ve been building your endurance by running greater distances over more frequent sessions, creating positive associations in your brain between increased training and better fitness.
Marathon training can breed a healthy addiction to long miles, the sense of freedom, adventure, and achievement – these are not easy things to give up.
But now you must pull back – reduce your training levels, just as the marathon itself approaches.
Anxiety about your preparations can kick in at this point. Any skipped training sessions will now seem like huge losses, and you’ll have a nagging urge to work harder, not ease off.
There is also a withdrawal from the regular dose of endorphins you get from a big run, and those highs can be difficult to lose.
If you’re thinking this all sounds terrible, don’t despair – there are ways to make the tapering process a little easier.
When less means more – why tapering works
Over the last month or so, you’ve been pushing yourself hard. This exertion actually breaks down your muscles and causes micro tears in the muscle tissues. However, it is through the act of repair that muscles become stronger and grow larger, using the protein and carbs you’ve been feeding yourself throughout to rebuild.
Most of the repairs take place during rest days and sleep, but it can take seven to 12 days for muscles to fully recover. So after many weeks of running, eating and repeating, your muscles have a bit of repair work still to do.
Tapering is like an extreme rest day, allowing all the work you’ve done to properly bed-in. Not only will your muscles get the chance to finish off any repairs, but your body can replenish stores of its favourite fuel - glycogen.
Glycogen is stored in the muscles and used as the main source of fuel for movement. Building up reserves of this important molecule will save you from the dreaded bonk at the crucial 20 mile mark. If you use up your reserves by running long miles before the event, then you have little chance of performing at your best on the day.
This is one of the key elements of tapering: With refreshed muscles, big glycogen stores, and a mind hungry to get back on the road, you give yourself the best chance to peak for race day and give a performance of which you can be proud.
How exactly you should taper
The benefits of a taper increase with the severity of the cut from your peak training miles. So, if – according to our training schedule – you’re going to slice your miles from the max weekly total of 38 miles down to just 22 on the week before the race, then that 42% reduction will deliver a significant result.
If you’ve tailored our schedule for your own needs, or you're using another plan that doesn’t offer tapering advice, there is consensus for reducing your miles by around 30-50% in the three weeks before the event on average.
You should try throughout to keep up your pace intensity during the taper period, as it’s the reduction of overall miles and time spent on the road that will deliver the most benefit.
Maintaining your intensity in this way should also go some way toward off-setting your craving for long miles and sustaining your endorphin hits.
You should also maintain the frequency of your running, except in the few days before the race. Our marathon training schedule guide suggests two rest days before the race, with just a 15-minute run out on the eve of race day to loosen up and get the blood flowing.
What should I eat during the taper?
If you’ve been eating excess carbs to provide fuel for your long runs – or just because you’re a runner and can eat anything you want - then it’s time to pull that back a little. But listen to your body; there is a lot of conflicting information on exactly what you should eat and when, as everyone responds differently to the taper.
For your body to efficiently use this tapering time, it needs complex carbohydrates and protein. The carbs will be turned into fuel, such as glycogen, and also be used in muscle repair. Protein sources will contribute to muscle growth, making you stronger.
Also, try to eat regularly – once every three to four hours. This should keep your inflated athlete's appetite at bay.
You might have been avoiding a lot of difficult-to-digest, high-fibre and complex carbs up to now, but your eased back schedule should allow you to reverse that a little. The nutritional and fuel reserve benefits will come in handy. Aim for around 7g of carbs per kilo of bodyweight per day.
Go for some wholegrain options, and eat plenty of fruit. Each plate should be a rainbow of colour.
Clean meats (poultry and fish), beans, legumes, nuts, and green vegetables will aid muscle repair and make you stronger for race day.
You’ll still be focused on eating mostly carbs, but don’t neglect the importance of muscle-building protein.
Aim for around 0.8g per kilo of body weight.
It can be a difficult balance between staying hydrated but not overdoing it. The taper period will see the body quickly store up water, which is a good thing. Like it or not, the best way to track your personal hydration level is from the colour of your pee – it should be clear or a healthy pale yellow, and you should be evacuating once every two to three hours. Drinking too much can dilute your electrolytes, which are important for muscle function, so don’t overdo it. Water is the first choice, but sports drinks can help make up the difference if you’re not making your carbohydrate quotas.
Compression clothing has been shown to offer real benefits for recovery times for athletes. The clothing can provide increased muscle oxygenation, reducing blood lactate build up, and speeding up recovery times.
The benefits can prove particularly useful just before a big event, helping significantly with soreness that may arise in your taper period.
It also helps limit excess muscle movement, which can cut your propensity for injury.
These leggings ensure you get the right amount of compression exactly where you need it. They increase muscle oxygenation and stabilise active muscle to enhance performance and speed up recovery time.
Not only does this workout tee boost your upper body performance and help minimise muscle strain around the core, back and shoulders, but it also keeps you cool and dry with its HeatGear technology which wicks away excess sweat from the surface of the skin.
It is beneficial to wear calf guards during your training sessions because they can help to stabilise the muscles and prevent injuries including muscle tears, shin splints and impact injuries. They are also great at boosting circulation during recovery which will help your muscles feel fresher quicker.