Taper, race and recovery

By Andrew Hibbert

The final training phase of preparing for your goal race, racing and recovering from it, is when you capitalise on all of your training from the base and sharpening work you have done.  Much of how you approach this phase will be very individual and so there are only a few fixed guidelines.  Ideally everything I discuss below you will have thought about and experimented with during your training so that you will know what will work well for you.  As you approach or run your big race is not the time to try something new.

Tapering – getting the most out of your training

As I have discussed in the previous article, during sharpening your goal was to train at a level that you could only maintain for a few months.  At the end of this your body will be tired and not in top race shape.  A period of recovery is needed during which you heal, build up your energy and adapt to the level of training you were doing, leaving you in peak race condition.  This is all the goal of the taper.

Tapering will last 1-2 weeks before a half marathon or 2-4 weeks before a marathon.  You should decrease the distance you are running in fairly even steps each week but maintain the types of training you were doing.  This means you will still do a long run, race pace run or tempo run, at the same speed as you were before (not faster), but for a shorter distance.  These sessions should hopefully feel relatively easy.  This effort will probably drop even more for the last week before a marathon, when you will do very little running and conserve energy for the race.  For example, from a peak of 40 miles per week you might drop to 30, then 20, then 5 in the week before the race.

Final preparations for the race

Hopefully you will have been thinking about the race for a while and visualising the course.  As you approach the day it is very useful to picture the course again and think about how you will feel at the different stages of the race.  I find a very useful tool for this is to use mapping software, such as MapMyRun, available online to trace out the route and then import this to Google Earth.  This allows you to fly around the route and helps you to remember what you should expect on the day.  As you think about what to expect don’t forget to plan for things to change.  How will you approach a wet/hot/foggy day?  What if you are late or the start is delayed?  If you think about possible problems now they will have less effect on you on the day.

As you approach the end of the taper nutrition becomes very important.  The key things you need are lots of carbohydrates and lots of water.  The carbohydrate will fill your glycogen stores in your muscles and liver, which you will need during the race.  Different foods suit different people, but pasta, rice and porridge are among the favourites.  Especially during the last 24 hours be aware of any foods you should avoid.  In particular, dairy foods can lead to stomach problems in some people when racing, as can having too much heavy food.  Again, if you have experimented already you will know what works for you.

Race day

Your approach to this day is almost entirely your own choice.  Everyone has different approaches to their preparations (quiet or sociable, maybe using music, discussing the race or almost anything else...), the warm up (which might be useful, if gentle, but might be skipped especially with a busy start), to the race (running by feel or relying on their watch, picking runners to stick with or staying on their own, energy gels or not...) and afterwards.  The best source of ideas and tricks people use on race day is to talk to the members of the club about what works for them.  Again, your past races will be your best guide of what works for you.

Recovery, and the next cycle

Now what?  You have trained for months to reach your target race and now it is finished.  Hopefully it went well but either way your running focus for a long time has been and gone.  At this stage I hope your goal will be to get back into running and start thinking about your next challenge.  The training stages I have discussed are a cycle, so the next stage is base training again.  However, you should first recover from your race.  A guideline for how long this takes is 1 day per mile raced, so 2 weeks after a half-marathon or a month after a marathon.  During this time you can build up to your past base level of training (or less, if you choose) and ensure you are injury free.

During this recovery you can run, or not run, as you feel.  If you are very tired from the race then pushing yourself to run will risk injury.  A simple way to stay in touch with your running as you recover is to help the club, volunteering at club runs or marshalling at races .  These activities and talking to your fellow volunteers will also help you to evaluate all that you have done in preparing for the race.  What went well and badly?  What could you improve next time?  What would you like to be your next goal?

With these questions of evaluation and goal setting we return to my themes of the base building article, and the cycle begins again.

I wish the best of luck to all of you in chasing your goals.

© Andrew Hibbert 2008