Nearly there: don’t let worry take over the final stage of marathon training

The tapering phase aims to get the body and mind fresh for race day

The men’s marathon with Ireland’s Kevin Seaward during this year’s Olympic event in Rio de Janeiro. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

The men’s marathon with Ireland’s Kevin Seaward during this year’s Olympic event in Rio de Janeiro. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho


The long runs are almost done and over the next few weeks the mileage drops gradually. This is the month marathoners look forward to. We dream of weekend lie-ins, shorter runs and the extra free time. Unfortunately, many marathoners manage to fill this spare time with extra hours of worry as they overthink the marathon and start doubting the training they have completed.

It’s taper time: The tapering phase of marathon training aims to get the body and mind fresh for marathon day. Over these next few weeks, the body repairs itself from months of long runs and builds energy resources to fuel marathon day. This phase of training sounds like it should be easy as it mainly focuses on rest, recovery, eating well and building confidence and strength. However, many runners are not good at sitting still and accepting that less is more at this stage.

Marathon doubts: Without long runs each weekend the body can start to feel tired and heavy. This is a normal symptom of tapering and part of the process but many runners start to panic and feel like they are losing fitness. The doubts start with these physical changes and are supplemented by the added competitive marathon banter between friends and club mates and greater media coverage of the marathon. It’s no wonder that by race day there are so many runners doubting their ability.

Best use of taper time: If you have measured the success of your training by weekly mileage so far, it’s time to change the focus for the next month. There are many things you can do in tapering phase to help your head and your body be stronger for the marathon and none of these require running shoes. Most of these tasks can be done while putting your feet up and giving them a break before race day.

Rest and recover: You will not get any fitter this month; you will only burn up energy you will need for marathon day. Consider rest a time when your body is getting stronger and sharper for marathon day. Schedule rest in the same way as you normally schedule a run. Now is not the time to take up dancing, tag-rugby, spinning or any kind of new cross-training. You can start all that in next month. Keep your short runs going and focus on flexibility and mobility rather than intensity.

Trust the training: Look back over everything you have done since marathon training started. Focus on what you have completed and compare yourself to the runner you were four months ago. Think of all you have learned about your body and everything you now know about nutrition, pacing, technique, breathing and injury prevention. Write down the most important things you have learned in your long runs and advice you wish to remember on race day.

Get excited: Watch marathon movies, look at videos from previous marathons and chat to runners who have already completed it. Avoid taking advice from people who have never run a marathon. Everyone will have different tips for you so remember not to try anything new so close to the race day. Trust your instinct and refer back to your notes of what works for you in long runs.

Decide your pace: The best way to sabotage your marathon is to start too fast. It’s so easy to get carried away with the pace at the start when you feel fresh and adrenaline is pumping. Decide this month on your marathon pace by looking over your long run pace and work out what is realistic for you. You should know what time exactly you should pass the first 5km of the marathon. If you can control your pace in this first 5km, you will be more relaxed and make much better decisions throughout the rest of the race. Practicing running at this marathon pace in your short run will be good discipline.

Put your worries on paper: If you spend the month worrying about what may go wrong, you will have wasted one of the most exciting times of marathon training. Instead, take an hour out, write down everything that might go wrong and what you are going to do if that happens on race day. You will make a more rational decision now than you will at 20 miles. Once it’s all on paper, know that at least 90 per cent of what is on your sheet will never happen to you, but you do have an action plan if it does. This is a lot better than allowing it spin around your head or the month.

Get familiar with the route: Spend some time on the race website working out your logistics for the day. Know how you will get to the start line. Drive the marathon route or watch the route map video. Work out where the hills are and identify the water stations and the toilets on the route. If you are local, try running the last 5km-10km of the marathon route over the next few weeks. The more familiar you are with the final few kilometres, the faster they will go on race day.

Picture your race day: By the time marathon day arrives you should be able to picture yourself getting up, arriving at the start line, running the route, eating/drinking as you intended, following your right pace and best of all approaching the finish line with a smile. Practice creating this video in your head each day and by the time the marathon day arrives, it will feel like you will already have done it.

Plan your food: Work out exactly when and what you are going to eat and drink along the route. Buy any products early and make sure they are comfortable to carry. Know what drinks and food are provided on the day and where they are located. Decide what breakfast you will have and at what time. Pay particular attention to your hydration and nutrition these weeks now as your body builds its resources for race day.

Marathon checklist: Write down everything you need to bring you with you on marathon day and make sure you have it all in stock. Avoid race day panics by having everything you need at home.

Avoid comparing with others: Remember no two runners have had the exact background in running or in life so it is unfair to compare yourself to someone else. Family life, work commitments, stress, illness, genetics and general lifestyle are all different so why would you expect to be identical over a 26 mile run. If it’s your first marathon, be conservative. You can always beat the time next year.

Make the most of tapering: There are plenty of things you can do this October to get your head in the right place and be as calm and relaxed as possible for race day. It’s up to you to make the training and marathon memories ones you will want to revisit in the future. If you do everything listed above, you will arrive at race weekend feeling more relaxed, confident and in control of your marathon adventure.

Mary Jennings is founder and running coach with Mary trains beginners and marathoners and everyone in between to enjoy running and stay injury-free. Mary is also the creator of all our Irish Times Get Running programmes: Beginners Get Running, Get Running 10k and Get Running Stay Running.

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