Mastering the final few weeks of training is trickier than it seems.
Marathon training is hard—the long runs, hill repeats and the arduous track sessions take a tremendous toll on both the body and mind. When many marathoners review their training schedule they get giddy at the sight of the taper, which typically starts two to three weeks out from race day. The reduction in volume and intensity is a welcome one. But what many runners don’t realize, however, is that the taper can be just as (or even more) difficult as the rest of the training cycle.
Why is this? How does a taper help a marathoner in the first place and why do you need them?
First, the benefits: According to 2006 U.S. mountain running champion Nicole Hunt, who now coaches at Speedendurance.net, tapers “bolster muscle power, increase muscle glycogen, muscle repair, freshen the mind, fine-tune the neural network so that it’s working the most efficiently, and most importantly, eliminate the risk of overtraining where it could slow the athlete down the most.” Additionally, Hunt notes that a well-designed taper will increase a runner’s performance. “Studies have indicated that a taper can help runners improve [performance] by 6 to 20%,” she contends.
So what exactly is a “well-designed” taper?
The key is to find the optimal balance between three key training elements: duration, weekly mileage, and key workouts. A taper that doesn’t incorporate enough rest can leave a runner feeling burned out going into the race, while a taper overabundant with rest can be mentally taxing and result in a deterioration of fitness.
Many top coaches and elite athletes have differing philosophies on how these three elements should blend together. Let’s take a look at what a few of them had to say over the following pages.