I've targeted the Kingston marathon in October to get a new PB (target sub-3.30, current best 3.38 at Edinburgh in 2014). Over each of the next 16 weeks, I'll be addressing a different aspect of marathon training. Follow me on my journey and tell me about yours!
After months of pushing your body, possibly like you never have before, you need a break. This is the purpose of the 'taper' - a period of easy miles, rest and preparation for the race you've been training for.
The typical marathon taper is three weeks, with your last long (sometimes longest) run three weeks before race day. This gives you plenty of time to recover from the exertion of that long run. The more used to running long distances you are, the less time you may need to feel refreshed, but in order to perform at your best an easier period of running is important.
Assuming you've followed your training plan, all the hard work is done with 2-3 weeks to go and you can't get any fitter before your race. This is because it takes a minimum of four weeks for any improvement to take place, so while you might want to keep pushing it, this is a mistake. It's tricky because you may well feel at your fittest and want to go for PBs in shorter runs or training races. Resist the temptation and you'll reap the rewards come the big day.
As you ease off with your training, you may find yourself suffering from 'taperitis', also known as 'maranoia' or 'taper tantrums'. Symptoms of this mythical disease include irritability, doubt, phantom leg pains, heavy legs on short, easy runs and a general malaise. This is all perfectly normal. Having spent months juggling life around your long, short and tough runs, to have it all taken away requires some readjustment to so try to be patient and remember to trust in your training.
As is the case if you get injured, you might find yourself with more time on your hands. This might be a good time to get another (more sedentary) hobby or better still, spend more time with friends and family who may well have seen a lot less of you over the previous months.
Read my post on tapering for an ultra - some of it also applicable for marathons.
In practical terms, during your taper you should generally reduce:
a) total mileage (to ensure fresh legs)
b) hard workouts (to avoid injury)
c) calories (this is not the time to put on weight)
By now you'll be used to feeding the 'runger' and eating whatever you want. But with fewer miles, you're as well to be a bit careful about what you're consuming. The easiest way to do this is to cut out the junk food and alcohol. I don't think there's much wrong with the odd glass of beer or wine even the night before a big race, but if you feel that you're better off staying sober for a few weeks, it certainly won't do you any harm.
While reducing the above, try to increase:
a) rest (you probably need it)
b) marathon pace runs (get used to running at race pace)
This last one is particularly useful for several reasons. The closer you get to race day, the more specificity is important i.e. getting your body used to running how you will on in the marathon. It's also more satisfying mentally to push yourself a little bit than simply plodding along every time you go out for a run. Beyond the psychological, research has proven that small amounts of 'fast' running results in better marathon performances than slow, easy miles at this stage.
The final week
All of the above stands for 2-3 weeks before the marathon. In the final week you should be doing very little indeed and nothing much above easy pace. I say 'should' - this is the received wisdom. We are all different and your preparations will vary compared to other people and even yourself in another race, so it may take a while to figure out what works best for you.
As I've missed so much of my planned training for this marathon, I'm going to try an inverse taper. I ran Ealing Half Marathon last weekend (race report here), I'll do a 20-mile run this weekend, and the marathon is the week after that. The idea is to keep building my mileage until race day as I haven't had the chance to do so in the previous months. It remains to be seen if this works but that's what this is all about - experimenting until you find a formula that works for you.