I love running races, especially the longer ones, but honestly the stress of trying to taper properly used to be enough for me to almost swear off Marathons for good! That is until I took the time to come up with a simple plan for easing back on distance and intensity ahead of a race, instead of just playing it by ear, which never worked for me.
The plan below is what I came up with and I've been using ever since. Not only does it allow me train and rest without feeling guilty, but it gets me to the start line without chewing the walls the week before and feeling fresh as a daisy.
This plan works off the assumption that you have just done your longest run of your training prep, about 20 miles, three weeks out from your marathon. So we start our taper the day after that long run, simple. This doesn't mean that for the next three weeks you won't be doing any serious running, these training sessions are still just as important we are just slowly going to reduce the volume and intensity.
As the previous week should of been the highest total miles run so far, we want to decrease each run by about 20-25% but still sticking to that same basic running schedule. So if last week your long run was 21 miles then this week your long run would be between 14 & 16 miles this week and so on.
If you do any cross training or speed work, now is also the time to start easing back on these sessions. Three weeks out from a marathon is not the time to be seeing how heavy you can squat or how fast you can run 100m. This doesn't mean you have to stop all non running activities but just notch down the intensity.
Just because you have started your deload doesn't mean you have an excuse to gorge yourself silly three meals a day. Instead just eat similar to how you did the week before, but with a little extra protein thrown in after your training sessions to help with recovery.
Two weeks out is where the taper really kicks in and you switch from training mode to focusing on staying healthy and loose. Life now becomes a balancing act, ensuring you get in all the recovery time you need (which is a lot), while still moving enough to feel good and sharp on your feet.
Your mileage this week should be about 25% of what it was last week so if you ran a total of 40 miles last week, this week will be 30 miles etc. With your long run being no longer than 12 miles and could be as short as 8.
Your focus this week is not on pushing race pace but on keeping fresh so your pace should all be about one and a half to two minutes slower than marathon goal pace.
The only exception would be one 'sharpening' two to four mile run in the middle of the week at marathon pace.
As the volume starts to get eased back in your training, you're likely to feel one of two ways. Either you'll have a craving to eat everything in sight or you'll find your appetite vanishes entirely. This is why it is so important to go into this week with a plan in place, your calorie intake should be the same as the week before but with a slightly higher fat intake.
This is it the week of the big race! Your number one priority is getting to that race line in the best shape possible. This means eating more foods that your body responds well to and resting lots. Be warned you might find yourself with tonnes of energy come Wednesday/Thursday, this is a good sign. But it is not an excuse for you to go hard in training.
Assuming a Sunday race, from the Monday before, do no runs longer than four miles. These are just short, easy runs to get the blood flowing and build confidence. Do them slowly! Then take the next three days off completely, that means no running, spin classes or gyms sessions. Though you can go for easy slow walks if you want to get out of the house.
On the day before the big one, lace your trainers up one more time and lightly jog two or three miles to settle your nerves. If you can do this on the course itself the better. Then just relax and recover until tomorrow.
This week is all about topping up those fuel stores ahead of the big day. That means more calories and more carbs, for most people this is an increase of about 20% throughout the week and then 25% to 30% the day before. Make sure though that these are all foods that work well for you, as otherwise you might find yourself bloated and sluggish rather than fast and light.
It can be hard in these final three weeks to allow yourself to sit back and recover but a good performance on the day depends upon it. Remind yourself that there are no prizes for the best training run, pour a little more granola in that bowl and find something good on Netflix! You'll thank me come marathon day.