The Art of Tapering

Far be it for me to touch on such a topic. I feel that the more one gets deeper into the subject of marathon, the less one actually knows. For example, it is always assumed that ‘more is good’ when it comes to distance running. At least this is what the ‘guru’ of distance running Arthur Lydiard maintained. However, now, we are not too sure. With the advent of sports science and research, these old paradigms are constantly being challenged and re-invented. Yet, to be truly innovative requires not just a deeper understanding of our subject, but an honest examination of our ‘firmly held’ methodology. After all, everyone makes mistakes. But the point is, we learn from them. It’s a lifelong commitment: A journey with no ‘end point’.

This is what I am here to do. When I look back at some of the blog posts that I wrote in the past, I cringed at some of the things what I assumed to be truth. It’s a learning curve. But it is a good sign that I reacted to them like I do now, it only shows that I am changing and moving ahead. All I can say is that with regards to the attainment of knowledge, I am not much wiser, but at least in experience, I am richer.

So, it is with this mind-set that I approach our subject matter. Tapering is a discipline. It is an integral part of training which is often misunderstood. We often assume that tapering merely means less running. But it is actually much more.

This tapering that we are referring to is often the tail end of a running program, whichever program you choose, arbitrarily, it is often the last 2 to 3 weeks leading up to the actual marathon race day. Some programs emphasises 2 weeks whereas others 3, but frankly, you will need to look at the intensity of your work out to decide on the length of time for this crucial segment of the training.

There are a number of aspects about tapering but with regards to the actual weekly mileage, tapering essentially means cutting down by at least 35% to 50% leading to the race day. The point here is to allow the muscles to recover adequately. However, one of the common mistakes that a runner makes (usually the novices but experienced runners may get caught too) is to ignore this and resume intensive training, often up to a few days before the race. Some do it out of guilt because they felt undertrained, some are overenthusiastic, still, there are others who assume that they could just recover in time. Whatever the reasons, don’t do it. You will only find out the effect of that decision somewhere along 25-32km of the marathon race. By then, it is too late. I can say so because I have been there.

That is why I say that tapering is a discipline. It requires you to resist the temptation of overreaching and overtraining. If you had not put in adequate mileage by the time you should be tapering, then you have to choose a better program to adhere to next time rather that make up for lost time. Readjust the goal/target time instead of jeopardizing your chance of performing optimally for the amount of training that you have already put in. This is old school check and balance.

Needless to say, for those who had actually trained hard for a specific target time, tapering is all the more crucial in ensuring a better performance on race day.

I have hinted earlier about the intensity of the training. A marathon program will often only tell you to do a certain type of training with the specific prescribed distance. A better program may tell you about the intensity required for that training (i.e. Zone training etc). But you alone can know what the actual ‘perceived’ intensity of a specific training is. That is because your body doesn’t remain in the constant. The body physiology fluctuates daily. It could be influenced by sleep deprivation, stress, poor diet etc. Thus it will invariably affect our ability to cope with the intensity of a specific training. That is why most programs are ‘flexible’ enough to alternate the days of intense workouts with ‘easy’ days, in order to factor in recovery. But even so, the cumulative effect of training day in day out, week in and week out, can be a tremendous stressor that only tapering, if done correctly, could help to undo.

This is why I titled this post the ‘Art of Tapering’. We need to learn to read our body well. This is not just by means of knowing the physiological variants, but more so, by being in tune with the perceived effort of a particular workout. For example, I know I can do a sub 40 minutes for a 10km. But for some reasons, on that particular day, I find myself ‘uncharacteristically’ tired by the time I reach 5km, I would not be ‘in tune’ if I fail to recognize that this kind of fatigue is not the typical 5 km ‘inertia’ that I often get over with in my usual runs but something else altogether. Then, I would back off and slow down. Or even stop. Then I would find out why I was tired. Learn from it, recover well before attempting another intensive workout. Making adjustment along the way is being in tune with the body. After all, the vehicle needs proper maintenance to perform optimally. But if we ignore the signs, it is no different than abusing ourselves.

This is the point of tapering. We have stretched ourselves by weeks or even months of training, optimizing the number of mitochondria recruits as some would say it, but because we fail to taper well, we are actually nullifying ourselves despite all the effort that we have put in. Some saying goes like this: If we fail to plan, then we plan to fail. Tapering is adhering to that plan. And if I may add to that, to some extent, it is right to say that the race starts with tapering.   

What tapering is not, is putting up those feet and reducing yourself to a couch potato. It is commonly accepted that the LSD would be reduced to less than 20km. I personally would not go beyond 15km as I enter tapering.  I would still do the usual tempo and interval runs, but at a lower intensity. For example, instead of the usual 8x800 Yasso, I would probably do just 4. Instead of a 10km tempo pace run, I would stop at 6km. Staying ‘idle’ is not an easy task as most motivated marathoners would naturally push the boundary and do more. It is a struggle just to do less. But save all that mojo for race day. You know it will pay off.

Enter the week leading to race day. This is the time where I give most attention to my condition. Training is a matter of fine tuning at this stage. If you suddenly realize that you have not done adequate mileage, resist the temptation to do more than 10km to atone for your guilt. It will be suicidal. I usually just go for slow jogs: Defined by no more than 9km/hour speed. During the jog, I would perform some tune up by doing 2-3km of pace run. This is at the pre-set marathon pace that I know I am capable of achieving at this point of my condition. Special attention is given to the effort, in particular my breathing during the short run. I ‘ought’ to feel rested and ready by the end of that run.

Aside from all that training (or lack of which), special attention needs to be granted to the diet and sleep. Again, know thy body. Find out what works for you. For me, I take a lot of Omega 3. Or if you can, eat lots of Salmon. I tend to boost up on the vitamins especially vitamin C or any antioxidants to ward off infections. I know some may be sceptical about vitamins, but I am just sharing from my own experience. Refrain from alcohol or anything that will stress the liver. Liver is a huge source of glycogen storage apart from the muscles. 3 days leading to the race day, I take Magnesium tablets consecutively because I have a tendency towards cramps during the race. Of course, Magnesium is NOT the cure for it all. If you lack mileage in your training, no amount of Magnesium will alter that fate of cramping.

Carbo-loading is important, but only if you know what ‘carbo’ really works for you. For me, I don’t do too well with pastas. Instead, I do well with rice like a typical Asian. I usually start the process for all three meals 2-3 days leading to race days. Don’t over eat either. Some may think that more is good. But please be kind to the digestive system. They could only take this much. Whatever excess will just come out one way or the other. Both ways are equally unpleasant. Eat no more than 25% of the norm for each meal. I tend to keep to easily digestible food. So, steak is strictly reserved only for after race…

Sleep is crucial. But never get too hung up about it. I know some insomniacs, it’s a vicious cycle. The more you think about it, the more restless you become. Just be restful and cease from excessive partying or shopping 2-3 days leading to race day. Just catch up on your usual 7-8 hour sleep and you would have granted the muscles adequate opportunity to recover and your body the chance to be refreshed.

Tapering isn’t complete without that key element of mental preparation. I personally would take a walk to settle whatever that troubles my mind. If you can help it, settle the issues first instead of bringing the quarrel into your race. Be at peace. Learn also to focus your mind on the race; visualize the route, elevations, pace and your strategy based on your current physical condition. You should already know what you are capable of. Now is the time to connect the dots. There is no point in psyching yourself into a trance and assuming a false sense that you can ‘do it all’ as long as ‘you believe’. The training has already done that. If you have trained well, then, you will. It’s not a magical thing. I have run more than 40 marathons so far. I can say that this ‘make believe’ got me into trouble more times than I could remember. It’s a deception. It makes you believe you can fly. But if you don’t have the training to back it up, no matter how strong is your mental strength, something else will have to give. In summary, be at peace with yourself.   

The art of tapering is for everyone to master like an artist who delicately works on a piece: every stroke, intricate detail and the myriad of colour is proportional, intentional and precise. The outcome is more than just a work of art, it speaks of balance, strength and discipline depicted on the canvas of our lives. We owe it to ourselves to hone that ability; because at the end of the day, all of us want to run a good race. My race is 10 days away, so writing this post isn’t just for the readers alone but more so, it’s a reminder to self. I just want to finish strong. So, before we toe the line on 25 Jan 2015 at SCHKM, let’s taper well. 


  1. Tapering weeks is a love and hate period in training. Knowing race approaching but need to resist to do more for it. However the rewards will come during the race day -- all the best for your coming SCHKM!

  2. Thanks Kent, yeah, tapering is certainly a love-hate thing. All the best for your Seoul run. :)


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