Less running, more recovery. Say what? As you approach marathon race day, everything you have been told for the past four months gets flipped upside down. After months spent building miles, and pushing the body to new training levels, it is now time to back off and begin the “taper.”
When we are in a training phase, the goal is to challenge the body and to push for improvements in specific fitness. Getting better is about stressing the body through training, then giving yourself just enough recovery to allow your body to adapt and make improvements before hitting it hard again. During training phases, it is about all building blocks. You are stacking one run upon another, progressively getting stronger and stronger. What was hard at the beginning, is now manageable because your body has adapted to previous training loads. Think back to your first few long runs, and how challenging they were. But now a 12 to 14-mile long run nearly feels like a piece of cake, or soon will! It is because your body has adapted to those initial training loads and you are ready for more.
Getting better boils down to a simple equation: work + rest = improvement. Training is “work,” and “rest” is the recovery time and methods you employ in between runs. During a training phase, the balance leans towards training. You do as much training as possible without allowing your body to go over the line where injury and excessive fatigue come into play. The harder you can push your body, the more you call upon it to improve its abilities. But there comes a time when you need to change the focus in preparation for race day.
We call that the taper phase. At this point in your training, there is no amount of running you can do that will make you fitter; pushing too hard now might actually make you worse on race day. A well-executed taper will help you be better prepared to perform on race day. Primarily, that happens from changing the balance of work and rest.
That change in balance allows your body to take in all of that work you have been putting in, and finally fully adapt to it. It is why your long run can top out at 20 miles, but suddenly a few weeks later you can accomplish 26.2. That is because you ran your 16, 18, and 20-mile long runs on slightly tired legs on the back of a full mileage week. Now that you have finally allowed your body to fully recovery, it adapts to the work you have put in.
As you begin your taper two to three weeks before your marathon, the first step is to reduce training mileage by approximately 20 to 30 percent of your highest weekly mileage. Typically, in most training plans, this point in mileage would be that with which you achieved in the most recent week. As you reduce mileage, your general training intensity should remain constant. Just because mileage is lower, you should not be speeding up your typical runs. Running faster during the taper will negate the benefits you were seeking from reducing mileage.
Backing off in training sounds great at first. However, when that the time actually comes, many marathoners struggle with the idea. You have put in a lot of work towards your marathon. You are accustomed to dedicating much of your time and energy to running, and while it is tiring, it also makes you feel accomplished as you celebrate the incremental steps achieved.
During the taper, you may start to feel restless, feeling like you should be doing more. Your down time does not feel relaxing; it may even make you feel lazy. What you must realize is that it is normal to feel this way and you are doing what your body needs in order perform on race day. Remember the equation, it is not just work. Improvement also requires recovery.
With more time on your hands, you also have more time to think about race day. This can be a dangerous thing if you lose focus. Rather than stressing out about things you cannot control, such as weather, what other runners will be doing, and the course, you can refocus your efforts to fine-tuning your mental game. If you do not yet have a mantra, start thinking of one. What will you tell yourself when the going gets tough. It will get tough, no matter how well you have trained, so get ready to overcome!
Spend some time reflecting back on your training season. Review your training log, relive some of those hard-fought miles, and dial in on some of the high points achieved during training. Soak in all that you have accomplished and let those memories fuel you this through this time. When you feel restless, grab the foam roller, drink an extra glass of water, ice your shins, or get a massage. After four or five months of training, you have every reason to be confident in yourself.