Exactly four years ago, I was in the middle of exploring the north east coast of Brazil, stopping for a few days here and there in gorgeous locations such as Praia da Pipa and Canoa Quebrada before heading south to Florianopolis, Rio de Janeiro and everything in between. Since it was after carnival and the peak tourist season, I was able to enjoy relatively empty beaches and plenty of quiet time, in a hammock or on the sand.

After six crazy months, during which I learned two new languages (Spanish and Portuguese), trekked in various countries (including the Inca Trail and across Patagonia), partied all over the place (including carnival in Salvador), took more marathon bus rides than I can remember, met hundreds of people and crammed in as much as humanly possible – it was time to unwind and reward myself with some “lazy days.”

I wasn’t not doing anything – I was just cranking it down a notch so that I could recharge my batteries and launch myself 100% into the next leg of my adventure.

Tapering after a challenging training cycle is pretty much the same thing.

For months you pour your energy into your runs and other workouts – ideally reducing the mileage for one week out of every four – and then for a period of time before your big event, you gradually reduce the volume (rather than the quality) of your runs to allow your body to rest and fully recover from all your hard work. In other words, you do the same types of runs (long, tempo, interval, recovery) at the same intensity but decrease the number of miles, reps etc. so that you will be raring to go on race day!

Kinda like slowly walking down a staircase, as I did to reach this beautiful Brazilian beach, before diving into the ocean…

Given that my half marathon is this Sunday, I have been winding down my training recently. My schedule called for a two-week taper, but in reality, my taper will be closer to three weeks, since I changed my schedule and ran a 10k rather than my longest run two weeks before race day.

The final week of my half marathon training schedule is the following:

Sunday: 65min easy with last 10-15min at goal race pace
Monday: 30min easy
Tuesday: Rest or spin class, easy effort (I rested)
Wednesday: 10min easy, [30min sprint, 30sec jog] x 5, 10min easy; Another option is 10min easy, 5min tempo/goal race pace, 10min easy.
Thursday: Rest or yoga class
Friday: Rest
Saturday: 20min easy incl. 4x20sec acceleration strides
Sunday: Fleet Half Marathon

You can find my full half marathon schedule here.

For those of you running a Spring marathon, you probably still have a few weeks left of hard training before it’s time to taper. When I trained through winter for the Paris marathon last year, I remember this part of the training cycle being quite tough – you’re almost there though, so keep it up because very soon you’ll be rewarded with three taper weeks!

In case you’re curious, this was my three-week taper leading up to the NYC marathon last November (which my coach, Sam Murphy, created to fit my work and travel schedule):

Taper Week 1
Monday: 45min easy plus strength training
Tuesday:  Rest
Wednesday: 10min easy, 5x20sec acceleration strides, 2 x [10min tempo, 10min MP], 10min easy.
Thursday: 45min easy
Friday: Rest
Saturday: 45min easy
Sunday: 10M “long” run, with last 20min at 8-8.05 pace
Taper Week 2
Monday: Spin class (or rest)
Tuesday:  40min easy run
Wednesday: 15min easy, 3 x [2 min hard, 2 min very easy], 10min easy
Thursday: 6 miles at 8-8:15min/mile (MP)
Friday: Rest or 40min easy (Fly to NYC from London)
Saturday: 40min easy, 20min MP (Central Park, on marathon route)
Sunday: Rest
Taper Week 3
Monday: 30min easy
Tuesday:  Rest
Wednesday: 1M easy, 3M @ MP, 1M easy (Don’t perform any hard runs after the Wed before a Sun race)
Thursday: 40min easy or rest (I rested)
Friday: Rest
Saturday: 20min jog w/ 3×20 sec strides when warmed up. Last 5min at MP – without looking
Sunday: ING NYC Marathon – 3:39:36

I got a great time, so I must have done something right!

Tapering sounds easy, but it’s something that many runners struggle to do correctly, whether it’s not resting enough, not eating the right foods, not tapering for long enough or whatever else. It’s essential, however, that you taper properly if you wish to have a strong race, so make sure you really listen to your body in these final weeks. Err on the side of caution if you feel tired or sore; try to get sufficient sleep for the two weeks leading up to the race (studies have shown that two nights before race day is the most important night for sleep); get a sports massage a week before to loosen any tight muscles; and make sure you eat plenty of nutritious foods without overdoing it to avoid unnecessary weight gain (if training for a marathon, you should expect to gain a couple pounds, which you’ll burn off on race day).

The nutrition aspect of the taper is a lengthy and debated topic, and one that I always struggle with the most. For a half marathon, you probably only need to start increasing your carbohydrate intake the Friday night or Saturday morning before the race. For a full marathon, I would advise increasing your carb intake three to four days before the race. As with your clothes, shoes and everything else, always make sure that you have tried and tested everything you eat the day before and day of your race – from your pre-race dinner and breakfast to the sports drink or gels you consume on the run! The last thing you want is to have an upset stomach because you decided at the last minute to try one of those freebies at one of the race refreshment stands.

In terms of “carbo loading,” many people differ in opinion as to what’s best to eat in the days leading up to a race, but it is widely accepted that you don’t need to shove plates of pasta down your throat. My coach instructed me to have about 6g of carbohydrate per kg of my bodyweight (about 330g of carbs) starting three days before the NYC marathon. She also encouraged me to plan out my meals to make sure I stayed on target. I did this, planning to consume 1860 – 2000 calories per day, with roughly 20% fat, 64-66% carbs, and about 15% protein. If you are interested, here is my pre-NYC marathon menu. I didn’t stick to it exactly, but I tried my best and it was a very helpful guide.

As you can see, I tried to maintain a relatively low fibre intake on the second and third days. This is mainly because my first marathon experience (Paris) was a slight disaster. Don’t get me wrong – I still worked with my coach to plan out a pre-race menu, but this time I tried to eat 400g carbs rather than 330g (and overall, too much food) and I ate whole wheat bread and pasta (which added up to a lot of fibre)! I’m sure pre-first marathon nerves didn’t help, either. Whatever the cause, let’s just say I had a very upset stomach between miles 10 and 22, there were hardly any bathrooms on the course, and the fact that I finished in 3:41 is a miracle. It truly is amazing what you can push yourself to accomplish. So…yeah, I learned my lesson and as a result, stuck to simple foods like white rice, pasta etc. before my second marathon. Thankfully, my stomach was rock solid throughout the race!

Clearly, it takes a bit of trial and error to figure out what works best for your body. Pre-race nutrition is a very personal thing, and that’s why it’s so important to experiment during your training and never try anything new before your race!

In case you’re interested, these are my favorite pre-race meals:

Lunch – grilled or baked fish with steamed spinach and sweet potato/carrot/ginger mash; Dinnerfresh pasta (such as chestnut pappardelle from Borough market) with shitake mushrooms, sunblushed tomatoes, olive oil and grated parmesan; and race day breakfast half-cup of Scottish rolled oats cooked on the stove with water, cinnamon, honey and mashed banana.

Lastly, don’t fret if you start to feel antsy, lethargic, nervous, or whatever else. I promise you, it’s completely normal – even if you feel like your legs don’t work! Just make sure you take good care of yourself and have a successful taper, and you will most likely have an amazing race.