Here are a few guidelines; certainly not exhaustive, and indeed not looking at anything outside the actual running, but intended to put right some of the slightly off-beam advice that has been published in recent years.
Firstly – how long? People have picked up on 3 and even 4 week tapers. This may be fine if you are an elite running pro, whereby you are peaking your build up at maybe 120 miles/ 200 kms in a week. From that massive load, 3 weeks out you might indeed scale that down towards say 90 miles/150km – that’s a significant reduction of 25% and will start easing some fatigue from your body. My view is that if you are maxing at a much lower level – say 45/50 mpw/75 to 80k then the 3rd week pre marathon (that is, ending two weeks before the race) can still be pretty full on. It ought not to be your biggest single week – which starts to look like catching up for lost time – but most aspects should be at full tilt. As in a previous blog, your longest long run is best done between 4 and 6 weeks pre marathon. Life doesn’t always go to plan and what looks like a very long term plan in early December can all get a bit squeezed once things like illness; Christmas; ski trip; sudden work overload; stag/hen do; kids swim gala (tick as applicable) have been and gone and messed up your planned 19 miler. But 15 days pre marathon isn’t the best time to see just how far you can go and how fast you can go over a very long distance.
Secondly – your body doesn’t actually ebb and flow in the 7 day cycles that our diaries are built around. So don’t think that on the 15th day prior to the marathon you can be stacking up the volume and then suddenly overnight you have to go into full wind down mode. Though there isn’t , and isn’t likely to be, data that shows the EXACT timescale for a training session’s benefit to be ‘converted’ into performance, many coaches and runners think it is about 10-12 days for the adaptation and super-compensation effect to occur. Readers of Pftizinger and Douglas’s Advanced Marathoning may be familiar with their views on this, and so we can be canny about applying them. In marathon terns it suggests that some form of overload can be done about 12 days out and still be of net benefit on marathon day. Personally I like people to do a big hard effort of about 8 x 1 mile/1600 meters at about 10 mile race pace with a 60-70 sec slow jog on between. This has been a typical component of people who have run very encouraging marathons based on their 10k/half marathon PBs so whilst it would be silly to say this is any sort of special session, it seems to be part of something useful. The aim is to do the session really evenly paced, rep by rep, minute by minute, and by this stage you really should know within 1% or 2% what sort of pace you can handle for this.
Thirdly – as I hope the above point clarifies, taper is just that, it’s not simply ceasing all running for a fixed period. That’s called detraining and, no surprise, if you have two weeks of inactivity you will in all likelihood lose a little aerobic fitness. You might well put on additional weight which, if nothing else, would adversely affect your VO2 max, and your pace at whatever % of VO2 max you will cover the marathon at, as there’d be more of you needing oxygen! So broadly we are looking at a reduction of about one third in the penultimate week and a further third in the final week. And the reduction gets gradually more obvious as the race day approaches. Also, we look to keep the same sort of intensity but with gradually less volume. So, for example, 8 or 9 days beforehand, something like 5 or 6k/ 3 or 4 miles at about 10k race pace is a good blast – basically, you finish the effort just before it starts to get really tough. Is this too hard too close? I doubt it. Here’s why – 8 days before Paula Radcliffe ran the 2005 World Championship marathon in Helsinki she raced the 10,000m world championship. She placed a highly competitive 8th – with the leaders until the last lap before the usual phalanx of East Africans zipped away. I watched that and thought, racing 10k like that off marathon prep, she must be in superb marathon shape. 8 days later she won the world marathon by over a minute –a very big margin at that level. Slightly less elevated a level, but probably swifter than 99% of readers of this will be managing, the National Road Relays often take place 8 days before the London Marathon, incorporating legs of 3 or 5.6 miles, and it’s fairly typical that leading national level runners will do a relay leg and have no associated adverse effects 8 days later. Maybe paradoxically, some ‘mileage junkie’ marathoners actually try to do a shorter leg just to slightly cap the volume at this stage.
Fourthly – ‘sharpening’ for the marathon. Hmm, what sort of pace are you averaging for your marathon? And how does this compare to your pace for interval training? How ‘sharp’ do you have to be for that? What is relevant for priming yourself for a 1500 metre trial isn’t the same as for a marathon, so whilst a few 300s or 400 metre reps will be fine if the volume; pace; and recovery between reps is all kept within controlled realms, don’t fool yourself that this is contributing to improving performance. Really it’s more about avoiding detraining. If you don’t take my word for it, back in the early ’80s when Joyce Smith was doing her world class 2.29s, (in her early 40s) I would often join her Tuesday sessions at Barnet Copthall. Typical final Tuesday – 5 days out – might be 3 x 1200m or 4 x 800 – we’d do it a tad slower than usual and wouldn’t be worried about the exact pace – just that whatever we were doing wasn’t really tiring us. At this stage, I suspect that the detail of the session is not a big worry, and particularly when viewed in the wider context of other, varied training sessions – if its 10 x 300 at 3k/5k pace or 3 x 1 mile at Threshold with a slightly more generous recovery than you usually take, then I’m sure you are getting a suitable balance between detraining and overworking too close to the marathon.
Fifth – maybe less clear cut – the’ long run’ the final weekend. The traditional carbo loading regime was preceded by a depletion phase which was itself triggered by a long run between 15 and up to 18 miles 7 days pre marathon. Admittedly, some people did run some pretty swift marathons on this but it was somewhat unpredictable regime so that runners were highly vulnerable to low level illness in the first 2 or 3 days of the protocol, sometimes with bad race results as a result. Most, but not all, now have a less punishing final weekend with the run between about 9 and 13/14 miles max (15 to 22k) at a steady pace. You won’t find absolute consistency on what runners do – and of course whether it is 14k or 21k one would assess it in the context of what they are doing in the preceding days too. My suggestion is usually in the range of 9 to 11 miles at a strongish pace, within 15 to 20 seconds per mile of marathon pace. Again, I don’t have anything empirical that this is best, but experience and common sense suggests that you can’t really be ‘detraining ’ with this sort of volume at this stage, and nor should it be something that comes back to haunt you 7 or 8 days later.
Finally – and I think you know this – you don’t run a good marathon purely by piling in a load of pasta for 14 days whilst lounging around in your slippers, though both options have their place in the taper (though the slippers are by no means obligatory) .
One way or another, not every marathon goes to plan and whether as coach or runner the intention in planning and doing a taper is that if for any reason you don’t perform to the expected level, then you want to be confident that the taper was not the main cause.