Project Marathon: The taper period

The beginner: Carol Williamson

So the taper period has begun (officially, anyway). There is much debate as to when this taper period should start – anything from one to three weeks before race day seems to be the consensus. I did my last long run on Sunday (the 16-mile Breakfast Run at Kingston), and I shan’t be running any further than 10 miles in any one session before the London marathon itself, on 26 April.

As I have missed a few of the long runs (I would say due to long-planned weekends away; others would say due to lack of commitment) and the furthest I have run is 17 miles, mild panic is starting to set in. If you know you have not prepared quite as well as you should (whether due to injury, illness or general idleness), there is a huge urge to ratchet up the training now the full horror of the endeavour is looming.

Sam Murphy obviously anticipated that my guilt would produce a mad burst of last-minute activity, and has given me strict instructions not to give into this temptation but to stick to her schedule. So this week, for example, is made up of a 30-minute “very easy” run, one 8-10 mile run, a threshold session and a 10-mile run. This is a schedule I can happily live with.

I am reasonably encouraged by how I felt both during and after the
Kingston run. The brutally early start was worth it just to do a long run in a “race” environment, which for some reason makes the miles clock up faster and more easily. Even though the course is made up of loops, it’s a pretty loop along the river with lots to look at to while away the time.

I felt fairly comfortable throughout, my second loop was faster than the first, and amazingly I wasn’t aching the next day (compared to a recent game of tennis when I could barely sit down the day after). So hopefully this demonstrates my “running muscles” are honed and in reasonably good shape (or maybe just that my tennis muscles really aren’t).

That said, did I feel sufficiently great at the end that I could have carried on for a further 10 miles? Hmm … it’s hardly the home straight, is it? I’m really not sure how that extra distance is going to affect me on the day. I know I would feel a lot more confident come race day if I had just knocked off a 20-mile run beforehand. Easter weekend seems the perfect opportunity to try, but I trust Sam that any potential benefits are outweighed by the danger of overtiring my body or, even worse, injuring myself.

I shall just have to line up on the day with the training I have done and hope that it is enough …

The improver: Matt Kurton

If I’m honest, this taper has come a bit early for my liking. What with the succession of niggling injuries I’ve been banging on about in this blog, I don’t really feel like I’ve managed to get to full fitness while I’ve been training for London: it’s been a tale of too many interrupted training weeks. So while the arrival of the taper the last time I trained for a marathon signalled the beginning of a welcome let-up and the end of a satisfying few months, now it feels like I haven’t done quite enough to start slowing down.

Still, I know better than to not take tapering seriously. Do it properly and, come the big day, you feel like you’re running on pillows, at least for the first few miles. Ignore it, and after 20 miles or so you’ll feel like you’ve strapped a couple of pillows filled with lead to your legs. Your muscles have been under a lot of strain for a long time, so giving them plenty of time to repair themselves makes a lot of sense.

With that in mind, I’m planning to cut my mileage by around a third this week. Then it’ll go down to around half of what I have been doing next week, and then in the week before the marathon, I’ll do a few gentle runs outside and a lot of short, sharp runs inside to move rapidly away from anyone who happens to have a cold. More than ever, the focus now needs to be on quality not quantity, so I’ll still be doing speedwork in an effort to stay sharp and to make sure my fitness doesn’t drop. But I’ll also be doing everything I can to avoid injury or illness and to let my body recuperate.

Like Carol, I’m really concentrating on eating the right things now (although stopping short of following her admirable teetotal lead). It all comes down to being as ready as possible. My preparation could have gone better, but if I make the most of these three weeks and resist any temptation to get a few too many more miles in my legs, then I should still arrive at the starting line ready to give the pacy rhino/Batman/giant cherry bakewell standing next to me a run for her/his/its money.

And with that in mind, is anyone out there running in fancy dress – or have you done so in the past? I think that if I ever run London again I just might, so outfit suggestions would be most welcome.

The importance of the taper, by Sam Murphy

Performing well in the marathon isn’t just a matter of doing enough training – it’s also about ensuring you are fully rested and recovered come race day. That’s where the taper period comes in. Research from Ball State University shows that three weeks is the optimal taper period between the last hard training and the race itself. This allows the body plenty of time to repair the damage to muscle fibres (microtrauma), replenish carbohydrate stores and give weary limbs a rest. A proper taper will give you some mental drive, too, so that you toe the line feeling raring to go.


Do use this time to formulate your race plan, including a realistic estimated finish time and the ‘mile splits’ you’ll need to achieve it.

Do increase your carbohydrate intake in the three to seven days before the race. With your reduced mileage, this will allow you to maximise glycogen stores.

consider sticking to softer surfaces, such as grass, during this final fortnight to reduce the amount of impact and muscle damage. But be extra vigilant on uneven ground.

Do try a ‘dress rehearsal’ on one of your final training runs. That means having the same dinner you plan to eat the night before race day, getting up at the same time, eating the same breakfast and wearing the same kit. That way, you can roadtest everything from your pace to your hydration strategy, your socks to your breakfast.

Don’t scupper your chances of having a great race by trying to cram in extra training in these last two weeks. Your last long run should be behind you now – further long runs will only serve to tire you, not improve your endurance.

Don’t think that less training will send your fitness in to decline. One study found that a good taper yielded a 3% improvement in race time. That equates to knocking nine minutes off a five-hour marathon.

Don’t do all your sessions at a plod. While the length or distance of all your sessions is reduced during the taper, studies show that continuing to include some faster-paced work is important to success. For example, you could still include an interval session, but instead of doing six four-minute reps, you might only do two to three reps.

Don’t worry if you feel a little lethargic and heavy during the taper. This is partly because your glycogen stores are full (since you aren’t continually depleting them with training), and each gram of glycogen stores with it 3g of water. Your body has also become accustomed to a large volume of activity, and the lack of training can make you feel as if your ability to run has vanished. It hasn’t.

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