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Nicky Edwards




Marathon Tapering: Here’s what it actually is and how to do it properly

Tapering can enhance your marathon performance by five per cent, if done correctly. For example, if you are aiming for a five-hour marathon time, that five per cent would shave off 15 minutes of running (Frontiers, 2021)What's better, tapering focuses on running less, eating well and sleeping more!


With just over three weeks until the 2024 TCS London Marathon, you’ll start your taper soon. This essential component of your Training Plan will help you recover from the accumulated fatigue from your long runs, meaning you will be in best form come Event Day.


Here to guide you through your taper is physiotherapist Nicky Edwards, who has taken on the TCS London Marathon four times!


Tapering refers to the gradual reduction in training volume and intensity, particularly running mileage, in the two to four weeks before Event Day (depending on your plan). It gives your body time to fully recover and repair damaged tissues and adapt to the demands of training. It’s also a vital time to replenish and restock fuel stores in preparation for Event Day. If you skip tapering, you won’t peak at the right time and risk getting injured and not making it to the Start Line.

However, tapering is more than just reducing your training. You should also focus on sleep, nutrition, hydration and ways to calm those pre-Event Day nerves. Here are six Dos and Don’ts in the weeks leading up to Event Day. 

1. Do reduce your training 

All Training Plans are slightly different, but usually the taper will start three to four weeks before Event Day. You need to taper slowly to allow your body to adjust to the reduced mileage, but also maintain mobility and flexibility. During the taper it’s good to continue with activities such as Pilates, yoga and swimming.                     

At three to four weeks out from Event Day, you will be doing your longest run on your Training Plan. For most people this will be a 20-mile run. This distance is a common mental hurdle that people want to clear before Event Day. While this is great for a lot of people, if you are going to be running a six-hour plus marathon, running 20 miles may take you four or five hours, or more. That is a lot of time on your feet and a huge stress on the body so close to the event. You risk not having enough time to recover, or worse, risk getting injured and not making it to the Start Line at all. I recommend that you base your longest run on time, rather than distance.

Ideally, your longest run should be no longer than three hours. Beyond this time the risk of injury and delayed recovery far outweigh any potential benefit. Your training has prepared you for Event Day. You will have completed so many runs on tired legs that your body has adapted to this increased load and you will be able to run longer on Event Day. You need to trust the process, it does work.      

As a general guide, I recommend reducing your mileage by the following amount:

  Three weeks to Event Day: 75% or your prior weekly average

  Two weeks to Event Day: 50% or your prior weekly average. Plan to shorten your ‘long’ run.

  One week to Event Day: a light week. I would avoid the hill sprints and interval sessions this week.


2. Don’t catch up on missed runs 


A common mistake people make during tapering is to catch up on ‘missed’ runs. Don’t do this. If you have missed any training, accept that it's in the past, and do your best with what you have achieved. Squeezing in an extra run or two while tapering defeats the point of it.


3. Do remember your why 


You may have heard of ‘Maranoia’. The term used to describe the fear, anxiety and irrational thinking that inevitably creeps in as Event Day gets closer. Even the most seasoned marathon runners are not immune to it. Fear and anxiety are normal, but how you respond to them can be the difference between making it to the Start Line or having to drop out.

Having a clear understanding of your why, the reason behind why you’ve taken on such an epic challenge can help to keep you focused and stay positive. Are you doing this as a personal challenge or to raise money for a charity close to your heart? Are you doing this in memory of a loved one? When doubt creeps in, think back to your why to help regain focus and determination.


4. Don’t go on one last long run the week before Event Day


Another common mistake is trying to do ‘one last long run’ the week before Event Day. As with trying to do additional runs, a long run too close to the marathon stresses your body and you will not have enough time to fully recover. Worst case scenario, you get injured and are unable to run. Best case scenario, you run but you haven’t fully recovered so you don’t perform as well as you could have on Event Day. It’s not worth it.


5. Do sleep lots in the lead up to Event Day


During tapering, sleep plays a crucial role in allowing the body to recover, repair and adapt to the training load it has endured over the previous weeks and months. Our body releases growth hormones which promote tissue repair and muscle growth while we are sleeping. Less sleep means less growth hormone release and therefore less tissue repair and muscle growth.

Poor sleep can also increase levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which can negatively affect immune function, mood, and cognitive performance (British Journal of Sports Medicine, 2021). So many runners get coughs and colds in the final few weeks before a marathon. Making sure you get plenty of sleep, as well as good nutrition, can help to avoid this.     

Barely anyone will sleep well the night before Event Day. The good news is that one night of poor sleep does not impair performance. You may feel tired and 'think' you are going to have a bad run but, physiologically, performance is not impaired. Again, mindset is everything here.


6. Do think about your nutrition and hydration 


Other key elements of a successful marathon taper include nutrition and hydration. A balanced diet with increased carbohydrate intake during tapering is vital for optimising energy stores for the event. Information about these areas and more detailed information about the elements discussed above are included in my upcoming book (the title is still a secret!). 


Nicky's publisher has kindly given her permission to share the chapter ‘Marathon Taper Secrets’ with you before the book hits the shelves! You can download your copy here. You can also follow her on Instagram or Facebook for more running advice.