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Tapering: What and How

By Michael Crawley

Tapering is what a candle does towards its wick. It’s also what marathoners do before they race. But how and when to taper before you light it up on race day will depend on the individual. The goal is to reduce your training in a way that leaves you feeling rested and full of energy when you get to the start line. This might mean gradually reducing your training for three weeks, or drastically reducing it in the last week. It may well involve feeling worse to feel better. I remember feeling terrible a few days before Manchester marathon, because my body was so used to its daily dose of running. You have to have confidence in whatever approach you choose. On race day I eventually started to feel myself at ten miles, at which point I felt pretty good and only had sixteen miles left.

Studying Eliud Kipchoge’s training log for ideas may seem a little presumptuous. This is a man, after all, whose idea of a ‘rest day’ involves a twelve mile run. But one thing that stands out from the training log he published leading up to his win in the Berlin marathon is that he ran 113 miles one week out from his world record attempt, implying that he didn’t really taper in any conventional sense at all. He just took it easy for the final few days once he arrived in Berlin.

For Ron Hill, the taper involved a dietary trick developed for Scandanavian orienteers that he adapted to his purposes – one of his many innovations. Starting a week before his race, he would cut out all carbohydrates. ‘I wouldn’t eat any bread, I wouldn’t eat any pasta and I wouldn’t eat any potatoes’ he said. After four days of this, he was ‘craving carbohydrates.’ No wonder, because he was still running every day. My coach also followed this diet in the ‘80s and recalls barely being able to climb the stairs by the Wednesday preceding a race. On the Wednesday, though, Ron recalls, ‘I would eat loads of cakes’ before returning to a normal diet with plenty of carbs. He credited this with allowing his body to store ten percent more carbohydrate than normal, which was very handy at the end of a marathon.

Basically what you are trying to achieve with the taper is to arrive at the start line with your metabolism ready to get you to the end – with a full store of fuel and fresh legs. In my experience the best way to achieve this is to take it very easy for the last week apart from some running at race pace on the Tuesday beforehand. What this does is to get the body metabolising fuel at the pace you plan on running, so that it is not in for a shock on race day.

Mostly, though, you need to put your feet up and take it easy for a week. After all that marathon training, you deserve it.

Michael Crawley is one of our sponsored athletes, and focuses primarily on the roads. He is also an ESRC-funded PhD student at Edinburgh University, studying the culture of long-distance running in Ethiopia.

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