The unfortunate truth about training for long-distance races is that you can spend weeks, months, and even years preparing for your goal event, sacrificing countless hours of sleep and time with family and friends, and bending your schedule into a pretzel in order to train, then completely sabotage your race in the critical days before the big event.
Think of the taper—the week right before the marathon—as the time to fill up your car with gas. You can have the fastest, prettiest car around. But if you don’t fill the tank with gas, you’re not going to get anywhere.
Here are five common tapering mistakes, and how to avoid them.
In the final week before the race, many runners try to make up for lost time and mileage to meet some pre-ordained number on a training plan, vanquish their own worries about loss of fitness, or make up for the miles they missed in training. This is a mistake. Research has proven that cutting back your mileage and speed by about 25 percent in the final two weeks before a marathon will make you rest faster. You don’t want to show up at the starting line feeling fried. You want to feel springy and energetic, ready to unleash all the strength, power, and speed you worked so hard to build up during training. You can’t boost your fitness in the final runs in the days before the race. You can only risk injury. If your training didn’t go as planned, or you missed miles due to injury, consider rescheduling your PR effort for another day when you’re more prepared.
Many runners are tempted to cut back on calories during the taper, just as they cut back their miles. It can be discouraging to see the numbers on the scale go up by one to two pounds in the days before the race—especially if you’re running in part for the sake of weight loss. But in the days before the race, you want to be building up your stores of glycogen so that you can have them to burn during the race. Aim to get 70% of your daily calories from carbs (the most efficient form of fuel for the body) in the final three days of your race. If you try to restrict calories, you could end up at the starting line feeling depleted and fatigued. All the hard work you did to earn a spot at the starting line could go to waste.
On the other end of the spectrum, many other runners use carb-loading and the impending race as an excuse to eat with abandon all the treats that they avoided during training. (Pastries, candy bars, buckets of pasta, oh my!) While it is important to pack in the carbs before the race, if you want to avoid GI distress, and avoid sabotaging your race, it’s important to simply replace the calories that you’d otherwise get from protein and fat, with carbs. You’re just changing the proportion of the calories you’re getting from carbs, not adding on to them. If you load up on treats that were up until this point, forbidden, you could end up having your race derailed by emergency pit stops.
In the days leading up to your big race, and on the day of your goal event, stick with the foods and the gear that you have tested and proven many times during training. Many a runner has been derailed by consuming or wearing something new on race day or in the days before the event. It can be tempting to test some new shoe, shirt, water-carrier, gel, or energy drink that promises speed and endurance, especially when so many vendors are enticing you with samples at the race expo. That’s not a good idea. If you want to treat yourself to something new, buy it and keep it in the package until after race day. You’ll have something to look forward to, and pep up your post race runs!
Race expos and bib pickup can be joyously fun occasions for marathoners. For those who train solo, expos offer a chance to hang out with people who share your love of the sport, your concerns and excitement about the big event, and trained just as hard for you for the race. Plus, there are often many vendors there offering exciting new products that you may be eager to try. But the expos occur in the days before the race when you need to be getting critical rest to run your best. Visit the expo early and try to beat the crowds. Pick up your number. Get in, get out, and get off your feet. The rest you get in the 24 to 48 hours before the starting gun will have a big impact on how you feel during the race, and your ability to reach your goals.