Some runners call it psychological torture the final week before a marathon. After months of prioritizing their days around training and mileage, in the final days you’re supposed to slow down, literally “tapering” your activities each day less and less so you can put your all into race day.
Kyser Blakely, a personal trainer and sports performance coach at Equinox, has helped five runners train for the Boston Marathon this year. He shared the crucial do’s and don’ts for successful pre-marathon prep.
“Now is not the time to panic about getting in extra miles,” said Blakely. Weekly mileage in the final week or two should be 40 percent of the typical training week, he said. This same ratio applies to strength training in the gym.
One faster paced run 4 to 5 days from race day, with easier runs in the days to follow will keep muscles fluid, according to the Boston Athletic Association.
So what’s so bad about pushing it? “Everybody’s different, but the majority of the time it’s going to impact a runner negatively because their muscles won’t have recovered enough,” said Blakely. “Plus there’s always chance of increasing risk of injury.”
Without a typical training schedule filling up your week, runners find themselves with, suddenly, tons of free time. They can begin to overanalyze their training and worry about race day unnecessarily. Blakely tells his runners to direct that energy toward mental preparation.
“A lot of runners get anxious and bored when we’re forcing them to rest,” said Blakely. “I tell my runners to pick up a motivational book that’s an autobiography of an endurance athlete, so you’re still spending that time preparing, but it’s in a different fashion.”
Although marathon runners are used to eating a lot of calories during peak training seasons, Blakely advises runners not to cut back, or load up, despite their inclination to do so.
“One of the keys to effective tapering is eating the same amount of calories, but not working out as much, so you can store energy up,” said Blakely. “Basically, don’t be extreme in one way or the other. Don’t eat too many calories or too little.” What you eat over or under your average might cut back on physical gains you’ve made during training.
Do have a routine.
“If you’re planning to wake up at 4 a.m. for the race, then you need to get your body used to it,” said Blakely. “But otherwise, I tell my runners to do the same things they did on week one, day one.” Even the warm up and stretching are important to keep consistent. “It’s your body’s signal to say it’s time to come out and play,” said Blakely. Introducing new foods or diets before the race can also be a disservice. Nutritionists and professional athlete dieticians say a marathon runner’s diet should be personalized and comfortable.
The main nutrition tip Blakely gives his runners is to “set a goal to be hydrated but not diluted.” Marathon runners typically hydrate in order to avoid cramping during the race, but Blakely warns that this can flush the system from essential vitamins and minerals that help you perform on race day.
“You know that bloated feeling when you keep peeing it out, hydration isn’t occuring at the muscular level, it’s just on the blood level,” said Blakely. “You need to fill the water you’re drinking with vitamins and minerals so the blood is absorbing something besides just water.”
Blakely recommends coconut water as a great option for staying hydrated and getting essential nutrients. The essential minerals to work into your diet to avoid cramping during a race are magnesium, calcium, potassium, and sodium. Foods like dates, chia seeds, sesame seeds, and bananas will also help you achieve healthy performance levels.
“It’s kind of like when you cook a steak and you marinate the muscles over night,” said Blakely. “You need to let the muscles sit in this stew of minerals.”
One of Blakely’s favorite pieces of advice has to do with preparing for that final moment crossing the finish line. You’re exhausted, and if this is your first marathon, you’ve accomplished one of the most demanding physical feats of your life. You might feel like collapsing, but Blakely tells his runners to remember to savor that moment.
“As you’re getting that finish photo, just make sure you smile. You can’t tell if you’re about to break a PR or anything, but what if you do?”
The ultimate key to tapering is the mental game.
“I don’t want them to overthink anything at all,” said Blakely. “Whatever happens the next day is what’s going to happen, and they just have to have faith in what they’ve done so far.”
Looking for a full tapering recommendation list? Review the Boston Athletic Association’s 2014 tapering tips here.