Typically beginning 2 to 3 weeks prior to race day, tapering is seen as the final stage in marathon preparation. While studies suggest slightly differing parameters in terms of how much to cut back your training, there is an agreement to its physical benefits. A general rule of thumb suggests you should deplete the intensity and distance by around a fifth to a quarter each week, with your final week 30-40% of your peak training cycle.
Having entered the final three weeks of my marathon preparation, tapering can become something of an unsettling hiatus: a period of relatively idle limbo sandwiched between exhaustive training and one of the most intensive workouts your body is likely to encounter.
Working up to a regular training week of 40-50 miles over 5 or 6 sessions, you become attuned to a routine of run, rest, run. The drop in intensity and mileage brings with it a sense of restlessness, pangs of guilt that you’re no longer in full training mode and concern that this will result in a drop in fitness. For this runner, there is no let-up in hunger either: I’m still eating for a family of four.
Rationally, however, it makes sense; your body needs time to recover from the fatigue incurred over the previous months. Studies have shown that the tapering period allows for any muscle damage caused - usually through interval training or a recent race - to be repaired. The rest allows your body to restore any depleted levels of muscle glycogen, enzymes and antioxidants to ensure you are at your peak for race day.
It is said, too, that your body takes around 6 weeks to build or lose fitness (coaches tend to devise programmes devised on 6 week blocks, or mesocycles), so you shouldn’t be concerned over losing any speed come race or endurance come race day. Even if you feel compelled to do one last long training run prior to the big day, chances are it will do more damage than good. Equally, if your training hasn’t gone as anticipated, then there will be little benefit in trying to hit 45 miles the week leading up to the event.
On first impressions, tapering seems rather contradictory: do less to gain more. The taper might, at first, seem something akin to exercise in idleness, but it might just be the most critical stage in your marathon training.