Taper Time

This year I find myself one week before the Dublin marathon with a longer tapering period than usual. Inadequate recovery, poor sleep are both well established risk factors for injury and while I haven’t suffered a musculoskeletal injury (yet) my chest and throat and voice box have taken a hammering. I haven’t ran in 2 weeks but I’ve had little choice if I want to have any chance of making the start line. The long runs are done yet there remains doubt. There always is in the weeks before it. Like a bride or groom in the lead up to their wedding day there are last minute feelings of uncertainty.


People who don’t run or commit themselves to such an event sometimes just don’t get the sacrifices required. It is why it can be useful for runners to get together for group runs, particularly the longer ones, or join clubs. It is good to be in a positive, supportive environment. Surround yourself with positive people! The boss in work might not get it or appreciate what you’ve been working so hard towards. Neither might “the boss” at home, or care why you’ve got this nervous anticipation. But runners get it! We get why in the week before an event how you find yourself under stress and doubting yourself.

Tapering before any sporting event is as individual as the running shoes you wear, or the nutritional strategy you choose on race day. It is specific to you. The classic method of carbohydrate loading consisted of depleting the glycogen stores with an exhaustive exercise bout, followed by 3 days on a low carbohydrate diet. This was then followed with another glycogen-depleting exercise and 3 days on a high carbohydrate diet. Historically this was difficult to maintain. A modified method was then established to include a hard exercise bout that was followed by 6 days of exercise tapering. During the first 3 days of the taper, a mixed diet consisting of 50% carbohydrates was consumed. During the last 3 days, a higher carbohydrate diet was consumed. But again it did not suit everyone. Athletes have since played around with these ideas, some now steering clear of carbohydrates and running purely on fat stores. Tapering for the race is just as individualised. Perhaps you’ve had an occasional glitch with an injury along the way. But with the volume of training now well reduced it is now when niggles can become apparent and you start to doubt the body. The anatomical structures you put under immense pressure at the beginning of the programme have adapted and become extremely robust to the demands you’ve asked of them. But now you’ve backed off. And that too, much like when you started this pathway is a big change for the musculoskeletal system

In general the aim of tapering is to cut the volume but maintain the intensity. Reduced training load aims to minimise fatigue without restricting the positive training effects. You could quickly feel like you’re dossing this week but what you’re doing is still of benefit. But for tapering to be of benefit it needs to be justified, i.e. preceded by by an overload period with increases in training by up to 50% in the 3-4 weeks prior to the taper phase. This is why all programmes will have had a gruelling few weeks of hard work of late. But training intensity seems to be the integral component for peak performance prior to competition. This means quality shorter runs getting used to race pace. The gains from getting this taper period right range from 2 to 9%, so definitely worthwhile getting right.

Pain during the Race

Achilles, lateral hip and lateral knee pain are the most likely areas to cause difficulty as the race progresses. As fatigue kicks in and form declines this is when these issues become more apparent. A self check here may help.

  1. Increase your stride rate, i.e. the amount of steps you take per minute. It will vary the forces being distributed through the leg.
  2. Make sure your feet are not crossing the midline on each step you take. This puts excessive force on the outside of the knee and hip as pelvic control becomes more difficulty (again stride rate will help this).
  3. Reduce your stride length. Do not allow your heel land to far in front of you. This will encourage a softer land.

Last minute Tips

  • Sleep well. The recommended 7-8 hours has never been more important.
  • Eat smart. Do what you’re used to doing. You know how long you need for food to digest before the run because it’s no different to your long run at the weekends. Breakfast should only be topping up the already stored levels of glycogen from the night before.
  • Know the course. Do not be left shocked at the sight of a hill when you thought you were home and dry.
  • Back yourself!


Good luck. See you all at the start line.

For more information on any of the issues addressed throughout this article please contact Rob via email at mccabephysiotherapy@gmail.com, Twitter @mccabephysio, Facebook at McCabe Physiotherapy or visit http://www.mccabephysiotherapy.com

Rob McCabe MISCP

Chartered Physiotherapist

MSc (pre reg) Physiotherapy, BSc Sport Science and Health, MSc Sports Physiotherapy, PG Dip Orthopaedic Medicine

Orchard House, Moorefield Rd, Newbridge, Co. Kildare

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