Pre-event tapering – the key to successful endurance performance

For anyone running a spring marathon, you should now be reaching the ‘business end’ of your training and no doubt starting to have a real mix of emotions.  As marathon day becomes closer, you’ll probably start feeling a mix excitement and apprehension as you start to analyse the effectiveness of your training. It’s perfectly normal to have these doubts and this is something that is common among first-timers, seasoned marathoners and elite athletes alike. 

However, now that the end of your training is in sight, it’s important to spend some time on planning your taper period which is arguably one of the most important parts of your training.

What is a taper period?

A taper period can be described as a reduction in training load which is designed to optimise your performance. The challenge is to reduce he physiological and psychological fatigue which has accrued over the last few months without losing your fitness and training adaptations. In other words, you should arrive at the start line feeling physically fit, psychologically refreshed and raring to go!

How do I plan my taper period?

Your training load can be described as the combination of your training intensity (how hard), volume (how much) and frequency (how often) and should be reduced during your taper in order to optimise your performance on the big day. Each of these components of training can be manipulated to lessen the load in the run up to your marathon. However, you don’t want to just suddenly stop training and put your feet up for two weeks. This could result in de-training and have a negative effect on the training-induced adaptations that have accrued over the last few months. So, how do you balance the need to reduce fatigue without ensuring your hard work during the winter doesn’t to go to waste!

Firstly, when planning your taper strategy, try and ensure the intensity of your training is maintained. If you run at a certain pace for your threshold/high intensity training sessions then continue at this same pace. This will help avoid the potential for any de-training effect.

Secondly, you should aim to reduce volume progressively to approximately 40-60% of your pre-taper volume although this is dependent on you as an individual. During a progressive taper, volume is reduced gradually over the entire taper period as opposed to a step taper where there are just one or two rapid decreases in volume. Your training volume can be manipulated by decreasing the duration of each session and/or the frequency of your training sessions.

For more experienced runners, it seems that decreasing the frequency of training sessions may not result in an improved race performance. Instead, you should try to maintain the frequency of training sessions or reduce them very slightly (by approx. 20%). This will help prevent de-training and can have psychological benefits – i.e. suddenly dropping 3 or 4 sessions a week can make you feel sluggish or you may experience a ‘loss of feel’ in relation to your pacing. However, for less experienced endurance runners, the frequency of your training sessions can be reduced by 30-50% without any loss of any fitness.

It’s important to remember that your taper period will not produce miracles or make up for inadequate training! Tapering is usually effective but the maximum gains you can expect are likely to be around 3%. Having said that, a 3% gain shouldn’t be sniffed at especially given that fact that you aren’t being asked to do anything more than you’ve been doing previously. For a 4 hour marathon runner, a 3% performance gain could knock 5 or 6 minutes off your finishing time.

How soon should I begin my taper period?

The optimum taper period for a marathon is likely to be ~14-21 days although this will depend on your training status, the severity of your fatigue as you begin your taper and your previous experience.

In summary, the effectiveness of any taper period is very individual and what works for your training buddy may not necessarily be appropriate for you. Generally, a 2 week taper period, where your overall training volume is progressively reduced by 40-60% without altering training intensity or frequency, is likely to be the most effective way to maximise your performance.

Finally, have faith in your training even if it hasn’t gone according to plan! While planning your taper period, take some time to look back on how far you’ve come since your started training for the marathon. To get this far, you’ve shown real grit and determination and probably discovered more about yourself than you’d originally thought!