Racing well is equal parts mental and physical, and your taper should be as well. Yet most of the dialogue surrounding the taper period reflects an undue bias towards exercise, specifically the reduction of exercise in preparation for race day.
But resting alone doesn’t guarantee you will have your “A” game on race day. Here are a few more points to consider as you head into the final few weeks of your marathon training. Some are simple; some are a bit more complex. My goal here is to give you insights as to how you can improve your taper — and by extension, your race — by broadening the taper outside “what not to do today.”
Track Your Resting Heart Rate
Since your top priority is to arrive ready to give it 11o% on race day, a large part of your taper revolves around recovery. But simply “not running” doesn’t give you any insight as to how your body is handling the taper and pre-race recovery. Get proactive with your taper and note your Resting Heart Rate (RHR) every morning.
To capture your RHR, simply take your pulse upon waking each morning before you get out of bed. If you don’t have a device to help you, you can place two fingers on your carotid artery (side of your neck) and count the number of beats that occur across a 15-second window; multiply by 4 and you have your RHR.
Ideally you will see your RHR drop as your body sheds the fatigue of the final big week of training. It will then stabilize to a “normal” state; this number is your new norm. Should you awake to find it higher than normal, make sure you haven’t overcooked a training session, confirm your sleep is good and do your best to reduce any external stressors such as work.
Finalize & Organize Your Travel Plans
We all respect the twenty-six miles of race day, but truly the logistics around having a great race are also very daunting. You have to travel, register, check-in, do a workout, eat, etc. You might want to do some food shopping, or get a cup of coffee. Yet most of us will be brand new in town, making the simple tasks above into more of an adventure than a foregone conclusion.
Do yourself a huge favor and print out all your travel information; perhaps you can put it on your smartphone as well, or at least your calendar.
Take a moment to contact your lodging to confirm your reservation. Map out the route in advance, so you have time to review and avoid getting lost.
If you are taking a cab from one place to another (airport to hotel), make sure you have the addesses you need, etc.
Focus on Total Hours Slept
Much like the section on Resting Heart Rate, I want you to proactively rest. Instead of heart beats, I want you to count total horus slept each night. The goal here is to idenfity how many hours of sleep works best for you (6? 7? 8? You can “judge” the effect of your sleep by assessing your mood early in the morning.
In an ideal world, you will be getting close to 8 hours of sleep a night. I realize that this could potentially be statistically impossible given your work , family and social commitments. But you still need to try. Sleep is both a physical and mental restorative process; don’t sell yourself short by trying to game the system or skimp on your hours.
Create a Race Plan
Some athletes are born to race; they handle the ups and downs of race day with a grace reserved for the athletically-gifted. The rest of us? Well, we are left to muddle through 26.2 miles while juggling aid stations, splits, changing temperatures and the irrational desire to remember exactly where our friends/family will be at mile 15 so we can give them hugs or a hi-five.
Make your race more manageable by taking 30 minutes to actually write down what you plan on doing.
What are your target paces at the start and end? How will you fuel and hydrate? What is your target split for halfway? For Mile 18? At what point will you transition from running to racing to the finish? Are you following a pacer or doing your own thing?
The act of writing this down effectively gives you a script to rehearse (see below) and will make race day an exercise in doing what we know vs making something up. It sounds trivial, but it’s very important. After all that time spent running, you should be able to find 30-minutes to get this right!
Set Aside Time to Preview the Course
I am amazed at the number of runners who have no idea what the race course looks like other than the hand-drawn cartoon map provided by the race director. Whether you are serious about competing or completing the race, knowing the terrain and layout of the course is a significant strategic advantage.
Set aside time to one or two days before the race when you can drive the course as best as possible (this might not be ideal for some urban marathons). If at all possible, make sure that you are the one driving so you can feel the nuances of the road. Be sure to note key landmarks that coincide with your race plan; this will help reinforce the important actions you have planned to take.
If you can’t make it out on the entire course for a preview, you might be able to get in a short run. Try to find an important part of the course so you can maximize your time. We don’t need you to run at goal race pace here (you are tapering, after all!) but you can learn more about how the course will flow and how your body will respond.
Double-Check Your Disaster Preparedness
Someone famous once said, “Everyone has a plan…until they are punched in the face.” While I don’t want you to get stuck comparing your upcoming race to a boxing match, I do want you to consider that your plan is only as good as your ability to execute the plan.
All day long the race, the weather, the distance, the other runners…they will all conspire to introduce the unexpected into your day:
- A sudden rain squall.
- The runner who stops abruptly in front of you.
- The aid station with no more ice.
- The road that suddenly turns into cobblestones.
- The shoelace that snaps.
- The shorts that suddenly chafe.
- The stomach that suddenly shuts down.
- The cramp that takes away your breath.
All of these are challenges to be overcome. You can rise to meet them and make them part of your story, or you can allow them to dictate your day. The best way to handle them is to be ready, to formulate a plan of attack: If “X” should happen, I will do “Y.” Use part of your pre-race mental review process to identify and solve these issues. You might not get them all right on race day, but having a few solutions ready to go will make you more confident.
Plan Your Last 24 Hours of Pre-Race Food
Personally, the most stressful part of any race that involves travel is sorting out what I will eat over the final 24 hours. I want quality foods, on my timeline, and I don’t really want to wait in a long line to get them.
Yes, I sound like a diva, but I speak from experience that having 6 months of training wiped out by a spicy meatsauce from the day before isn’t just heartburn, it’s heartbrake.
Identify local places to have breakfast, lunch and dinner, and definitely consider a reservation for dinner. Research your lodging to see if they offer an early morning breakfast for the race (including coffee!) or if you need to have something ready to go. Is there a microwave? A small fridge?
Knowing these answers will help you do the right shopping and will really set your mind at ease before the big day.
Set Daily Targets for Hydration
Being hydrated is a critical component of being ready to race. Many of us, when we stop exercising, also stop the daily rituals of nutrition and hydration that we have built up over the last few weeks and months. In addition to daily fluid intake, it’s important to make sure that you replenish any fluids lost during your final taper runs.
Please note — I am not talking about over-hydrating or putting yourself in a bad place, so if you are worried about how much you are drinking be sure to check in with a professional.
Determine Your “One Thing” For the End of the Race
At some point, the marathon will move beyond the physical capacity of your body or training. You will enter a really tough, hard-t0-define area where your ability to continue moving is what separates you from the competition, what allows you to achieve the goals you set before you started.
While the miles pass incrementally, fatigue sets in exponentially. Mile 13.1 is not, I repeat not, the “real” halfway point of the race. Almost everyone feels great at this point. Mile 18 is where things start to get serious, and every mile after that point is twice as hard as the one before: Mile 19 is twice as hard as Mile 18. Mile 20 is twice as hard as Mile 19, but also four times harder than Mile 18. You get the idea!
Since we don’t enter this space in our training, it pays to have a clear “One Thing” or reason to keep you moving when your body starts to push back. Maybe you want to finish before a certain time or pace group. Maybe you are planning on a great post race party. Maybe you are running in the memory of a loved one or to support a charitable organization. Whatever the reason is that you have, know that reason and have it ready to go at a moment’s notice!
Resolve to Capture Everything
On some level, I think this last one is the most important. Your marathon, as hard as it may be, is a unique moment in your life. It’s as much celebration as it is work, and it’s easy to miss out on capturing what the event means because you are freaking out about the temperature, race day parking and where to meet your family for hi-fives.
Bring a camera and take lots of pictures. Make notes. Capture what your mind and body are doing in these final days. All of this information not only makes a great story, but it will be instrumental in helping you to improve your race experience the next time you race. (Yes, you will most likely do another one, believe it or not!)
Thanks for Reading!
If you have any comments or suggestions for additional taper tips, please put them in the comments below.
Thanks and happy tapering!