Having been an avid half-marathoner and one time coach over the past 20 years, I have tried more running regiments than I can remember leading up to a race. Thus, when I was asked to write a piece on preparing for spring marathons, I wanted to focus on a single aspect of training I have found to be the most problematic. The biggest Achilles heel I can think of would be the taper.
Tapering is the period leading up to a race where you begin to scale back your training to give your body ample time to rest and repair itself before the big event. Depending on the distance and intensity of the effort, some athletes may begin their taper up to three weeks in advance.
Though only a small block in your training schedule, tapering is one of the most crucial. Imagine that every week of your training is a domino, staked one on top of the other. (I usually train for eight to 12 weeks leading up to my first long race of the season; beginners usually train for around 16 weeks). Now imagine the taper as the final piece. If it is even slightly out of balance, the entire stack comes crumbling down.
This could be your race day if you don’t taper correctly.
But isn’t tapering just resting? How hard could that be?
I find runners have difficulty with tapering for two reasons. First, inveterate runners are creatures of habit and indulgence. It is very hard for some to cut back, even in the face of a big race, because they have grown to crave the rush of a good run week-after-week. I know I get restless if I go more than a day or two without putting in some miles, so I totally sympathize.
The other trap I see many fall into is changing their routine up too much. Maybe they do something different with their diet or try a new warm-up the day of the race – the Internet is polluted with countless articles on what one can do to improve performance just before a race. However, changing your routine too much can backfire just as much as not adjusting it at all.
The Golden Rule of Tapering
As mentioned above, there is an ocean’s worth of articles and advice out there on how one should taper (this one included). However, my golden rule has always been to listen to your body. You know how much training is enough; you know what will leave you tired and tight before a race; you know what diet makes you feel the most alert and energetic. If what you have been doing has felt fine for the tenure of your training, why mess with success? Listen to your body and give it what it asks for, and I promise everything will fall into place.
I would argue that tapering, unlike training, is more instinctual then mental, a skill sharpened the more you do it. Below, I share my typical taper. This will illustrate a few things to look at more closely when planning your own.
The only part of my routine I change during a taper is a slight reduction in my training. First, I cut out any strength or cross training. These cannot only leave you sore, but may increase the risk of injury depending on the activity.
I leave my weekly morning runs alone: they help calm me in the morning and stay focused throughout the workday. These are generally shorter efforts anyway, around half my race distance, rarely leaving me feeling worn out.
For my Saturday long run the week before a race, I reduce the length to mirror my morning runs or around half of my race distance. (I am currently training for a 13.1-mile race, so about seven miles). Any effort exceeding this has the potential to leave you feeling tired during the days to come.
A friend invited me to do a 10-mile trail run with him the week before a ½ marathon I had been training months for a few years ago. What seemed like a fun, scenic adventure at the time left me sore most of the next week and I underperformed in the race I had spent months preparing for. Lesson learned.
Diet and Sleep
Ever heard of runners eating huge pasta dinners the night before a big race? Well, it’s a thing for a lot of people.
However, if you didn’t gorge yourself on a gluttonous Roman feast prior to your long runs during training, I don’t advise you to start now. I don’t recommend you do anything differently with your diet leading up to a race.
I have a friend who indulged in a mountainous pasta orgy the night before a race last year… atypical for him. Half way through his ½ marathon, he ended up going down a side street and – for lack of another way of putting this gently – took a dump in someone’s drive way. Lovely. While this story never ceases to amuse, imagine training for four months (and paying $100+ to participate), just to dock five minutes from your goal time to find a hiding spot and then dropping a deuce in public.
I had a similar gastronomic misfortune happen to me. After reading a storm of articles on the benefits of ingesting caffeine just before a race, I woke up early the morning of the Shamrock 8k last year to have a cup of coffee beforehand. My time was on point, but my heart felt like it was going to explode out of my chest for the duration of the effort and my stomach was in knots the rest up until the afternoon. Long story short, I did ok, but had a miserable experience.
If you’re diet works for you – be it pizza and soda or broiled vegetables and coconut juice – do what works for you.
Ditto on sleep: if what you have been doing is going well, keep on keeping on. Trying to force your body to get more shuteye the days leading up to a race will just disrupt your sleep patterns and leave you tired.
Many people feel jittery the night before a big race. In breaking with my don’t-do-anything-new dogma, I generally find taking a light evening jog the evening before a big race helps me get to sleep easier. It also warms up the muscles and gets the blood flowing, stirring up some pre-race adrenaline that comfortably carries over into the next morning. I usually don’t do more than two to three miles at a pace barely above brisk walking. This always makes a big difference for me.
The morning of the race
I know I’m beginning to sound like a broken record, but no new funny business the morning of the race. Whatever you usually do prior to your weekly long runs, stick with it. Any new stretches or warm ups will just leave you feeling stiff and tired for the first mile.
I hope this article inspires you to focus more on your own pre-race rituals. As I mention in my golden rule, you (hopefully) know by now what works for you and what doesn’t. Now is not the time to reinvent the wheel – listen to your gut, don’t try anything out of the ordinary and give it your best on race day. Don’t forget to have fun and reward yourself for a job well done after you cross the finish line.
Don't miss the New Orleans' Rock 'N Roll Marathon & Half-Marathon on Feb. 28.