Time to taper? When to start slowing down

If you’re running a marathon or half-marathon this autumn, the good news is that the bulk of the hard work is already done…

If things have gone to plan over the past few months you’ll have plenty of miles in your legs, be approaching your longest training run, and soon be turning your mind to tapering. But what exactly is tapering and why is it so important?

Put simply, it’s the process of gradually reducing your training before the big day, helping to ensure your body is at peak fitness for the race itself.


How does tapering work?

Tapering is important for three main reasons:

– Muscle recovery and repair: After weeks of rigorous training, your muscles need a breather. Tapering allows tiny muscle tears to heal and gives your body a chance to recover from any aches and pains you’ve been feeling.

– Replenishing your energy stores: Reducing the intensity of your training allows your body to top up its stores of glycogen – the fuel your muscles need to keep going during high intensity exercise. Taking a breather in this way helps prepare your body for the extra demands you’ll be placing on it during the race and reduces your chance of hitting the dreaded “wall” on the day.

– Mental space: As anyone who’s got to this stage in their training plan will know, running is just as much a mental game as it is a physical one. Tapering can act like a mental pause in the days leading up to the day, giving you some time back to focus on rest, relaxation and calming those pre-race jitters.


How should I start tapering?


Effective tapering takes planning and should be an inbuilt part of any marathon training plan. It might be tempting to keep bashing out the miles in a bid to up that PB, but failing to prepare your body is likely to have the opposite effect.

Here are the key elements to effective tapering:

– Timing is everything: The length of your taper depends on the race distance. For a marathon, a three-week taper is generally recommended. In the first week, reduce your mileage by 20-30%, followed by 40-50% in the second week, and a further 60-70% in the final week.

– Maintain intensity: While you’re cutting back on mileage, it’s important to try to maintain the intensity of your runs. It can be a good idea to include some shorter, faster-paced sessions to keep your legs responsive without over-exerting them.

– Stick to the familiar: Chances are you’ve got into a nice running routine now and have a good idea of what works and doesn’t work for you. Tapering is not the time to change this. Don’t experiment with new routines, gear or nutrition. Stick to what’s been going well and don’t introduce any additional stress into your workouts.

– Slow down, don’t stop: The idea is to gradually reduce, not sit back and relax just yet! Tapering doesn’t mean stopping completely. Keep your body active with light cross-training and easy runs. Gentle yoga and stretching are also a great idea at this point, keeping your body moving without putting strain on it.


Tapering challenges


After so many weeks and months of training it can feel strange to have to start slowing things down. Your body has got into a routine, you’ve broken through the motivation barrier and you’re itching to just get on with the race.

It’s for this reason that tapering can prove tricky – many runners face restlessness, doubt and even phantom aches and pains as they reduce their levels of activity.

Staying relaxed and keeping a positive mindset can really help, although we know it’s easier said than done.

Try to trust in the process and remind yourself that your body is benefitting from the taper, just because you’re not logging long miles, doesn’t mean what you’re doing isn’t worthwhile.

If you need a bit of moral support you can always turn to the community in the Virtual Runner Facebook page to help with any tapering queries or concerns you may have.


The final countdown

As you approach the end of your taper and race day approaches there are a few final things that can help.

– Prioritise rest: It sounds obvious but aim for a good night’s sleep beforehand if possible. Nerves might make this challenging, so don’t beat yourself up if you can’t sleep. Meditation apps and breathing exercises can help to keep you calm. Know that you really have done everything you can and that adrenaline will help to carry you through on the day.

– Hydration and nutrition: Stick to familiar foods, and hydrate well in the days leading up to the race. Eat a carb-rich meal the night before.

– Visualise Success: Spend a few moments picturing yourself crossing the finish line strong and triumphant. Believing in your training and tapering plan can do wonders for your confidence.

Most importantly, embrace this phase, trust your training, and allow your body the chance to recharge for the journey ahead. You’re going to be brilliant.

Don’t forget to join our closed Facebook group for further tips, advice, motivation etc from fellow like-minded people.

See you at the starting line!