What do the marathon taper and the Ab Belt (the infomercial machine that sends shockwaves into your abs claiming to magically melt away belly fat giving you a ripped washboard stomach) have in common? On the surface you might be thinking they have nothing at all in common, but stay with me. Read the product’s fine print and you’ll notice the recommended exercise routine and nutrition plan you should follow for best results – ah ha! If you put in the hard work of exercising and eating properly you’ll lose weight and have a more defined midsection. Interesting. Similarly, the success of your marathon taper is dependent upon all the hard work put throughout the buildup. The taper won’t miraculously enhance your fitness, but there are some things you can do in the final week of training to get the most out of yourself on race day.
The biggest mistake people make in the final week of training is completely changing their routine. If training has gone well the worst thing you can do is change everything at the last minute. It’s not to say the taper isn’t important, it is, particularly for a marathon. In a race of 26.2 miles the energy requirements are much different than even a half marathon and ensuring your muscle glycogen stores are full is paramount. Truthfully, if you’re eating a well-balanced diet this shouldn’t be a concern, but backing off your training volume and intensity the final week is important to replenish muscle glycogen and to freshen up your legs heading into race day. You should cut your mileage back roughly 15-25% from the previous week, which should in turn be roughly 15-25% less than the week before that. I recommend doing this by trimming a little bit from your daily runs rather than drastically altering your weekly schedule. However, if you run 5 or more days during the week taking an extra rest day is a good idea.
Part of maintaining your weekly routine should include a workout the week of the race if you normally do a workout during the week. A Wednesday workout isn’t going to boost your fitness come Sunday so this session should remain moderate and at goal marathon pace. The typical workout I use with athletes is 2 miles at marathon pace followed by 3 minutes rest and another 1 mile at marathon pace. The idea is to let your legs feel race rhythm and do something to turn your legs over a bit during the week so you don’t feel stale on race day. The main thing here is to avoid doing anything anaerobic where you are could have lingering fatigue carry over to race day.
Destination races are popular in the marathon community (for good reason – “Honey, it’s not my fault I have to go all the way to Berlin to run the fastest marathon in the world.”) If you are driving several hours or getting on a plane to go to a race there are a few things to keep in mind. You should do a short run the day before your race just to shake the travel out of your legs. We’ve all gone for a run after spending hours in the car… and it’s the worst run ever. Get the worst run ever out of your legs before you toe the line. There is nothing better for your race than to go for an easy run to stretch your legs out a bit and get the blood moving after sitting for hours in the same position. It won’t feel good, but it will go a long way in ensuring your race will. Important to note that doing something to loosen the legs up the day before does not include spending all day walking around the expo or said destination city.
If you are going to make a vacation out of it make the race at the beginning of the trip, not at the end. (You should be taking the elevator to the top of the Empire State Building anyway; only a runner would think the way to get the true experience was to walk up 86 flights of stairs.) Be selfish the days before the race and avoid spending a ton of time on your feet, it will have a negative impact on your race. Get to the expo, get your bib number and get out of there, those things are like Vegas casinos with no windows or discernable exits so beware! Next thing you know you’re buying a new pair of shoes and gummy chews for the race tomorrow.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Which brings me to my next point; do not decide to do something, anything, for the first time on race day (or for dinner the night before – I don’t care that you’ve been “dying to try” those 7-spice thai tacos Guy Fieri was raving about on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives.) You should have practiced everything: what time you’re going to wake up, what you’re going to eat for breakfast, certainly what shoes you’re going to wear, how you’re getting to the start line, what clothes you’re going to race in, and what fluid / nutrition you’re going to consume during the race. Coffee or no coffee, hat or no hat, compression socks or no compression socks – these are all decisions that should be made before you’re heading out the door to catch the shuttle to the start. Having to worry about all of those things at the last minute (I’ve been there) adds an additional layer of anxiety to the already anxious pursuit of running a marathon.
And don’t forget to have fun! If you’ve done the work then the hard part is over, the race is a celebration of all that work. If you start to doubt every step you’ve ever run, like many of us do the night before a race, look over your training log and review all the hard work you’ve put in. It will give you the confidence you need to go to the start line relaxed and ready to take advantage of your preparation. And if you’re well prepared then enjoy the celebration!
*This Article Originally Appeared in the November 2014 Issue of Running Journal