Tapering is something associated with marathons and ultramarathons more than it is shorter distances. Heading into your first marathon in particular you may have never tapered before, other than training less on the week of a race.
Tapering is a tactical element of running and race preparation in that you gain no fitness, but you can optimise performance if you get the taper right. The research into tapering shows that it does improve performance compared to not tapering, but the quality of tapering the study athletes used is hard to measure, so the evidence is somewhat muddied. The benefit of tapering isn’t necessarily as much as you might hope, but it’s still worth doing.
Traditionally speaking, tapering for a marathon lasts 2-3 weeks. This time allows enough recovery to take place, whilst the fitness benefits of months of training are maintained. There are different methods of tapering for marathons (which I’ll cover in another blog), and different athletes respond better to different types of tapering, both physically and mentally.
How well has training gone?
The point of tapering, as I’ve stated, is to optimise performance on race day, therefore how well your training has gone is another key factor in deciding taper length.
Over the course of preparing for a marathon, you may well miss a few runs, and even have to skip or cut-short one of your long runs. In this instance you may want to stick to a 2 week taper. The extra confidence and bit of fitness gained from one more week of training is likely to have a bigger positive impact on your marathon than an extra week of recovery which is less needed since your training load to that point has been lower anyway.
On the other hand, if training has gone perfectly to plan or even better, and your long runs are indicating that you’ll run well if you taper with 3 weeks to go, then that’s probably the best option. The safety of an extra recovery week where you’re less likely to get injured, will benefit you more than another week of training if you’re already at or above the standard needed for your marathon target times.
The challenge of tapering
The taper can be mentally the most challenging of all the weeks of marathon training. You can feel like you’re losing fitness, not on top of your running and with other things filling the place that running was taking up each week, it’s easy to lose focus and motivation. There are ways around it of course, but knowing your psychological response to the taper should be considered when deciding whether you choose two or three weeks.
How long should you taper for?
2-3 weeks depending on how ready you are, how you’ll feel about tapering and the type of taper you prefer.
Written by Kyle Brooks, Running Coach based in Norwich, Norfolk