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The Three Most Common Tapering Mistakes

How to maintain fitness in the weeks before a big race


Jeff Gaudette–A common saying among veteran and elite marathoners is that “the marathon taper is harder than the training itself.” When you’ve achieved a level of fitness where you’re no longer worried about your ability to complete the long runs, high weekly mileage and daunting workouts, the thought of not training and losing fitness during the taper is scarier than any workout a coach can conjure up.

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More importantly, the taper portion of a marathon segment is also the time when runners make the most costly mistakes, whether it be too little running, deviating from a normal routine, or getting too worked up. It’s easy to ruin months of hard work during what should be a relatively easy three weeks of training.

In this article, I’ll outline the three most common, but often less obvious, tapering mistakes I encounter when working with marathon runners.

Three Weeks Out: Resting Too Much

The single biggest mistake a lot of runners make in the last three weeks leading into the race is over-tapering. This will often lead to a flat, sluggish feeling on race day and increases the chance that you’ll get sick as your metabolism and immune system are thrown out of whack due to the sudden change in activity and decreased demands on the body.

Most athletes don’t feel good immediately following a couple of extra easy days or a rest day. They expect immediate gratification and a newfound pep in their step with just a few easy days. Keep in mind that it can take up 10 to 12 days to fully absorb and recover from a long run or hard workout.

How to avoid this mistake:

Most runners will find that reducing weekly mileage to 80-90 percent of maximum will provide a sufficient respite from the training load without leaving them feeling flat or sluggish. For example, if your peak mileage during the marathon buildup was 60 miles, your mileage would drop to 48-54 miles three weeks before the race.

Likewise, make sure you maintain some intensity throughout the week and are not restricting yourself to just easy runs. While your hardest workouts are definitely behind you, it’s important not to step off the gas pedal right away. I recommend performing just one workout this week.

Here is my favorite:

8-mile tempo run: Run the first 4 miles at marathon pace and the second 4 miles as fast as you can, which usually falls around half marathon pace. This workout provides some practice with running at your goal marathon pace (which should feel pretty easy at this point in the training) and a chance to “blow out the tubes” and get in one more confidence-boosting session. With mostly marathon-paced workouts left for training over the final two weeks, it can be good for your confidence to run quickly and finish strong and fast.

Two Weeks Out: Lack of Specificity

Perhaps the most detrimental marathon tapering mistake runners make is not keeping the workouts specific to the marathon in the last two weeks of the training cycle. For example, I often see runners try to do short, speed-oriented workouts to build confidence, make them feel faster, or because the thought of long workouts during the taper phase scares them.

The problem with this approach is two-fold. First, by performing a workout that uses an energy system you haven’t been utilizing in the last four to six weeks, you actually fatigue your muscles more because your body isn’t conditioned to it. It would be similar to performing a set of heavy squats when you haven’t lifted weights in 4-6 weeks.

Second, one of the most critical components to race-day success is being able to execute your race plan and run the correct pace, especially at the start of the race. In the last two weeks, you should capitalize on the opportunity to practice marathon pace. Not only does this ensure you’re working the exact energy systems you need for race day, but it will provide that crucial, last-minute pacing feedback you need to execute the perfect race plan.

How to avoid this mistake:

Do two workouts this week. The first is a longer, straight marathon-pace run, usually 6-8 miles, depending on your average weekly training volume. This workout usually occurs 10 days out from race day to ensure maximum recovery. The second workout is a broken marathon-pace run, usually 2-3 miles at marathon pace with a 3-minute rest between reps. Again, this workout will help you dial in your race pace and the 3-minute rest ensures that it’s not a hard effort.

Race Week: Weight-Gain Worries

The last week of marathon training is definitely the most difficult from a mental perspective. No matter how hard you’ve trained or how many miles you’ve run, you’re going to fear that you can’t run 26.2 miles, never mind 26.2 miles at your goal marathon pace. Trust me, even elites who average close to 150 miles per week and put in some crazy workouts have this fear. I know, because I was one of them.

However, a less obvious fear that almost all runners encounter is that of putting on weight during the final week of tapering.

All runners have been told that they need to load up on carbohydrates and build their glycogen stores as race day approaches; however, because you’re also significantly cutting your training volume and intensity, this increased calorie intake is bound to pack on an extra pound or two.

It’s a conundrum, especially if you’ve been trying to lose weight the entire training cycle and because this is the time you want to feel light and nimble. As a result, it’s a battle to get the glycogen you need without feeling like the marshmallow man. Typically, the desire to avoid weight gain wins the battle and glycogen stores don’t get maxed out.

How to avoid this mistake:

First, remember that a little weight gain is OK, since you’re storing extra fluids. A full gas tank is much more important than a couple extra pounds on race day.

My recommendation is to augment your eating habits so that you’re getting in the energy and calories you need without feeling stuffed. Graze on healthy snacks, such as vegetables and high-quality carbohydrates throughout the day. Also, keep each of your meals to between 600 to 700 calories, especially in the last two days before the race. Grazing and keeping your main meals small will help ensure that the calories are stored as glycogen, not fat.

As race day approaches, consider these three tapering mistakes and make sure you don’t fall victim to the same pitfalls in the last three weeks of your training plan.

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