The taper is the final phase of training and a very important part of the marathon training plan. However, runners often question: How long the taper should be? How much should I run if any during the taper? What should I eat?
Most marathon training plans are 16 weeks or longer. If you train up until race day, you've not provided your body any time to recoup and repair. Research has shown that many runners run their marathon overtrained and overtired. Sorry to say, though, that there isn't a cookie-cutter tapering plan the works for everyone. A runner, depending on his/her fitness level and experience level may need more or less of a taper than another runner.
RRCA certified coaches and co-directors of the Portland Marathon Clinic, Patti and Warren Finke, outline in their book Marathoning: Start to Finish several key principals that should be considered when choosing your tapering method:
• Rebuilding depleted nutrient stores in the body (such as glycogen) to their maximum requires 2 to 3 days of lowered activity.
• Rebuilding minor injuries in muscle or connective tissue takes a minimum of 5 days.
• The body's store of oxidative enzymes diminishes in 72 hours if not stimulated by aerobic exercise.
• Any training effect you get from hard activity during the last 10 days before the race will be minimal.
In a nut shell, the Finkes are basically saying to back off before the event but don't quit running completely. Basically the taper consists of decreasing the long run 2-3 weeks prior to race day and the mid-week mileage is reduced during the last 2 weeks—down 25% the first week; then down by 50% the week prior to the marathon. No long run should be done the weekend before the marathon. The last long run should be no longer than 8-12 miles.
Some studies have shown that doing some speedwork a few days prior to the race can be beneficial. The Finkes say this may keep you sharp and reinforce the neuromuscular facilitation of marathon pace. They also suggest that if you're feeling "hyper or edgy" the day before the race from all the carb-loading, it's fine to do an easy run of about 10-20 minutes.
The carbo-loading phase is done during the last week of the taper, but only during the last three days leading up to the race. A person not in training should be getting about 45% -65% of their calories from carbs. Someone in training for a marathon should be getting about 60%-70% of their calories from carbs. During the last three days before the race, the carbs should be increased to 70%-80% of their total caloric intake.
The first day of the carb-load should be made up mainly of complex carbs from whole grains. This should be the day of the heavier meals and the traditional pasta dinner. Complex carbs usually come with more fiber. So, by loading up on complex carbs the first day, you have time for them to be processed and voided well before race day. During the last two carb-loading days, you should taper off the complex carbs and switch more to simple carbs. Be careful though. Don't load up on tons of fruit and the like if you're not used to eating lots of fruit. Eat your last major meal 12-15 hours prior to the race. This meal should be comprised of easily digestible foods that will pass through your system before the race.
Be forewarned...each gram of carbs can store 3 grams of water. So to make sure you get complete carb storage, drink 4-8 glasses of water. You may very well gain a pound or two during this carb-loading phase. Most of this is water and will be sweated out during the race.
Eating before a race can be a tricky thing. I highly recommend testing out different foods for your carb-loading phase well before race day. Pick one of your longest training runs and pretend it's race day. Try a mini-carb-loading phase before this run. This will give you the opportunity to see how long different foods take to pass and which ones to avoid because they "hang around" too long.
Note: Diabetics and others with specific health problems should consult with their doctors about the best foods to eat during their carb-loading phase.
Check out Ryan Hall's video clip below and his suggestions for the marathon taper.