- In this installment of “Ask Coach Jane”, we talk about how to achieve the perfect taper. Runners spend months and months training for a race. We pound the pavement for hundreds, even thousands, of miles, but we are often unsure of how to put the finishing touches on our training plans. We know that training and nutrition are important, but we often do not recognize how important it is to allow the body to rest and recover before race day. Tapering is a science and, frankly, it confounds a lot of runners. I asked Coach Jane to help unravel some of the mysteries of the almighty taper.
- Question: What is the ideal taper? Some programs call for 3 weeks and others call for 2. What do you think is best and why?
Coach Jane: For marathons I think a 3-week gradual taper is best. If you have gotten in the proper training, the second most important thing you can do to improve your performance is make sure you are rested for the event. Moreover, it takes two weeks for any training you do to translate into physiological benefit, so strictly speaking the training you do in the 3 weeks prior won’t really help you run faster. However, training too hard leading up to the race will definitely negatively impact your performance. Furthermore, in an event like the marathon where you need all of your energy reserves, the extra days of rest can make or break you in the final miles.
Question: Jane, do you recommend that runners follow a specific formula?
Coach Jane: All these factors considered, I follow a 10%, 25% and 50% decrease in total mileage in the three weeks leading up to the race, with your last long run being done 3 weeks prior. In the final week of your taper, I advise doing no more than 3 miles every other day with an additional rest day thrown in. In addition, if you normally do a lot of cross-training, it’s important to cut back on your total time spent exercising. You can maintain the frequency of your workouts but cut down the length of each session by 50%.
- Question: Is cutting back on intensity during the taper as important as reducing mileage?
Coach Jane: Reducing mileage is more important than decreasing intensity in a marathon build. I normally don’t advise cutting back on intensity until the week prior to the marathon. None of the interval work that you do during the marathon buildup is (or should be!) at an all-out intensity, so doing some sharpening workouts while reducing mileage in the final weeks shouldn’t exert you too much. In the final week, however, the most important mantra to follow is: REST IS BEST. I suggest doing one interval session with each repetition done at marathon pace so that you practice running at what feels like a slow pace on fresh legs. This is good practice for the start of the marathon, where the energy you gain from your taper and the crowds around you will make you run faster than you should!
- Question: What elements besides running are important during the taper phase?
Coach Jane: In the taper phase, the ultimate goal is to feel rested with topped up energy reserves, so things like sleep and nutrition are very important. Try to get as much sleep as you can in the week leading up to the race. Many marathoners worry about not being able to sleep the night before the event but that is far less important that the sleep you’ve gotten the entire week before. If you usually run in the morning, sleep in and skip some of your morning runs. Alternately, if you run at night, treat yourself to an early dinner and bedtime the week before the race. Your body will thank you!
It is also important to stay well-fueled and hydrated while you taper. Many runners are afraid of gaining weight if they continue to eat like they did during heavy training so they reduce their caloric intake and end up running on sub-optimal glycogen stores. It is therefore important that you continue to eat plentifully and healthfully! If weight gain is a big concern or you are a heavier runner, simply reduce your intake of junk food and foods high in sugar. Finally, stay hydrated by sipping frequently on electrolyte beverages and drink plenty of water.
- Question: Can you address the emotional side of tapering, i.e. going ‘tape rnutty’?!
Coach Jane: Most runners run because they love the training process and running gives them a release from day-to-day stresses. It comes as no surprise, then, that cutting back on running can be a difficult process! To help deal with what some call going ‘taper nutty,’ distract yourself with other activities. For example, replace one of your runs with a yoga class, spend more time with friends, or watch a movie. By scheduling distractions at the times you’d normally be running you won’t go crazy or feel guilty for not being on the roads. It also helps to surround yourself with people who are not runners so that you aren’t reminded of what you are missing out on or always talking about running! Finally, remind yourself that you are tapering so that you can have the best performance possible on race day. Use this as motivation to take your rest seriously. I also often remind myself that voluntary rest is much better than being forced to rest due to injury. Think of the last time you were injured and how grateful you would have been to run the mileage you can run in a taper!
- Question: Any other taper tips?
Coach Jane: In the week leading up to the race, remember REST IS BEST. If you are scheduled to do a 3 mile easy run but feel unusually fatigued, or if you don’t feel like doing a full workout, skip it. It won’t bring you any benefit to push through!
All people who run with Project Purple get free access to Coach Jane’s training plans and advice. Learn more about running with Project Purple here: