The Trick is in the Taper


With the Comrades Marathon just around the corner, it’s a good time to take a look at some of the common mistakes runners make when it comes to tapering in the final weeks before a big race.

So you’ve done the mileage, put in the hours on the legs, and gotten your muscles ready for that long target race, and now you’re following the training programme instructions to taper down your training so as to arrive at the start line feeling fresh. However, this is a time when many runners make costly mistakes, whether it is doing too little running, deviating from a normal routine, or getting too worked up. It’s easy to ruin months of hard work during what should be a relatively easy few weeks of training.

1. Resting Too Much
Over-tapering is the single most common mistake made, which can lead to feeling flat on race day and also increases the chance that you’ll get sick, as your metabolism and immune system can be thrown out of sync due to the sudden change in activity and decreased demands on the body. So, instead of suddenly feeling fresh as a daisy when you reduce mileage, some runners actually don’t feel that good after a few easier days.

THE SOLUTION: Most runners will find that reducing weekly mileage to 80% of maximum will provide a sufficient respite from the training load without leaving them feeling flat or sluggish, but the secret is to maintain some intensity throughout the week and not just do easy runs. Yes, your hardest workouts are now behind you, but it’s important not to lose all your momentum, so you still need some quality work, like an interval sessions, or better yet, a 10km tempo run where you do the first 5km at race pace, then the second 5km as fast as you can, to give your legs a good workout. This firstly allows you to practise race pace for the big day, but also boosts your confidence with a strong, fast finish.

2. The Wrong Workouts
The next common mistake many runners make is to change their entire programme from long slower mileage designed to prepare for a long race, to just doing shorter speedwork in order to feel faster, or because they are scared of doing any more long workouts and arriving at the start tired. The problem with this is that your muscles will not be used to all the shorter, faster running and will fatigue quickly, and you will not be practising your race pace for the big day. The taper period is an ideal opportunity to get in this vital practice, especially for the start of the big race, and you’ll get crucial pacing feedback from your body to prepare you for the race.

THE SOLUTION: Do two workouts per week, one of them a longer, race pace run, the second a shorter run broken up into race pace segments with up to three-minute easy rest segments in between. This will help you maintain your race pace preparation while the rest intervals will ensure that the workout is not too hard.

3. Weight-gain Worries
In the last week of the taper, the most difficult aspect is usually the mental perspective. No matter how hard you’ve trained, chances are you’re going to worry about not having done enough in order to finish the big race. (Bruce Fordyce always tells runners that it is better to arrive at the race slightly under-trained than over-trained and tired.) Then there is the fear of putting on weight during the final week of tapering, due to running less and eating more to carbo-load for race day, where the increased calorie intake is bound to pack on some extra weight that must then be carried through the race. Typically, the desire to avoid weight-gain wins the battle and glycogen stores don’t get built to the max.

THE SOLUTION: First, remember that a little weight-gain is OK, since you’re storing extra fluids. A full gas tank is much more important than a wee bit extra weight on race day. Therefore, the experts recommend that you augment your normal eating habits with regular ‘grazing’ on healthy, energy-filled snacks in between your main but small meals, so that you avoid that stuffed feeling.