How to Taper Correctly

Q I’m about to run my sixth marathon, but I still have questions about tapering. I usually go to the gym for weight training twice a week. Should I keep doing this up until the week of the race? What about cycling classes? I was doing this once or twice a week too, but should I stop going before the race? – ANNIE


A Tapering is one of the most important aspects of the marathon training cycle and yet, it is also one of the most difficult to implement because runners fear cutting back on training. In theory, tapering sounds great – cut back on mileage, sleep in and eat. The reality is that we find ourselves going crazy during the taper period because we fear losing our fitness and gaining weight. However, reducing mileage is vitally important for full recovery from previous workouts and for peak performance.

Research has shown that tapering is essential for a successful race. Some studies indicate that tapering properly can mean a three-per-cent improvement in performance; which in running terms means a possible PB! Shaving even a few minutes off your marathon time may mean the difference between a PB, finishing before the cut off time, or qualifying for Boston! Tapering allows muscle glycogen stores to return to peak levels. Metabolic enzymes, antioxidants and various hormones, depleted during training, return to their optimal ranges. Muscle and connective tissues repair and strengthen. And, the body’s immune system improves dramatically too. In short, tapering allows your body to prepare for peak performance. One study concluded, “The primary aim of the taper should be to minimise accumulated fatigue, rather than to attain additional physiological adaptations or fitness gains.”

During the taper, it is most important to remember this: physiological adaptations to training take a minimum of six weeks. Therefore, training hard during the final two to three weeks before your marathon is not going to improve your performance. Doing too much during the taper period can destroy your marathon performance. Your best bet for peak performance is to resist the urge to do more. When it comes to tapering, less really is more!

Tapering begins immediately upon completing your last long training run, which is usually between 32 and 37 kilometres. Tapering means reducing the volume of your weekly training mileage during the final two to four weeks leading up to the marathon. The three-week taper plan seems to be the most commonly used plan among marathoners. Tapering properly means cutting your weekly mileage volume by 20 to 30 per cent each week from your highest volume week, for three weeks. For example, if your highest mileage week was 64km, you would cut your mileage by 13 to 19km. For example, Week 1 of your taper would then be 45 to 51 kilometres. In addition to cutting mileage, keep your run intensity to your goal race pace, and no faster.

It’s best to cut out cross-training in the final two to three weeks before the marathon too. Save your energy for the race. Drop leg or lower body weight training and spinning at the beginning of your taper period. You can keep upper body weight training for another week. For swimming, reduce the volume of yardage in swimming by 20 to 30 per cent during the first two weeks of tapering. At the end of Week 2, drop it altogether. You can continue yoga or pilates during the first and second week of the taper, and then discontinue them during your final week of taper. Keep stretching and doing abdominal exercises throughout your taper period.

Make some adjustments in your nutrition too during the taper period. Increase protein intake during the first week of the taper period to provide plenty of protein for muscle repair. Increase your complex carbohydrate intake and reduce fat intake during the entire taper period. Include plenty of the traditional sources of carbohydrates like rice, pasta, fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes. Drink plenty of fluids. Reduce alcohol and caffeine consumption during these last few weeks because they are diuretics. You may experience a slight weight gain of 900 grams to two kilograms during the taper period but, don’t worry, that’s your stored carbohydrate and water on board, which will come in handy during the marathon! – SUSAN S. PAUL

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