Swiss triathlete Daniela Ryf’s idea of preparing for the Zurich Ironman in 2014 was to participate in an Olympic distance triathlon a day before the race. Next day, she won the Ironman race.

But for most elite athletes, going the Ryf way is not an option. Instead, they taper, rest, carb-load and hydrate the day before a marathon so as to be fresh, strong and ready for race day.

Four days prior to a race, Anupriya Kapur stops running and takes rest. Photographs: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Four days prior to a race, Anupriya Kapur stops running and takes rest. Photographs: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

With the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon coming up on 29 November, that is exactly what you should be doing. That’s what Gurgaon-based avid runner and blogger Anupriya Kapur is doing. “I stop running and get as much rest as possible at least four days before a race," says the 34-year-old, who blogs at Momontherun.in. “A week before that I get a couple of easy-paced mid-distance runs (10km), followed by a massage for my legs."

Explaining the importance of tapering—the gradual decrease in mileage and intensity of training—American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) certified trainer and Mumbai-based running coach Purnendu Nath says: “If you do not taper long enough, you will not obtain peak performance. When tapering for your main race, the last long run should be two weeks before race day, whether you are training for a half or a full marathon."

Anything longer, and the gap will be too long, any shorter and the gap might be too small for you to be fresh on race day. “The older you are, the longer you should taper. Men can keep a shorter time than women," adds Nath.

Bengaluru-based running coach Dharmendra Kumar, however, says that the tapering period depends on a person’s fitness levels and recovery profile. “Some athletes recover faster than others; some have long-lasting training adaptations, whereas some others de-train quickly. If you haven’t gone through the whole cycle of training, you may want to have a shorter tapering period. Many new runners fall into this category. A seasoned runner who trains all through the year can, however, afford to have a longer tapering period," says Kumar, chief executive officer and founder of Protons Sports and Fitness, a company that has running training centres in Bengaluru.

The reason you need to taper in the run-up to a race is that you need to allow the body and mind to recover from the months of arduous training, and arrive at the start line with 100% fresh legs and a mind that is ready for the psychological stress of racing. Apart from an increase in muscle strength and power output because of tapering, one of the biggest gains occurs in the blood circulatory system.

“An optimized taper for an athlete can show an improvement of 2-3% on race day. For someone who has been consistently running half marathons in 100 minutes, that can mean an improvement of 2-3 minutes," says Kumar.

Apart from tapering and rest, you need to pay close attention to what you eat. A bit of popular advice that you are bound to hear while preparing for race day is carb-loading, which means eating foods that are rich in carbohydrates in the days preceding a race. But it depends on the distance.

“You do not need to carb-load at all for a half marathon," says Nath. New Delhi-based Reebok master trainer Gagan Arora agrees. “On an average, people finish a half marathon in about 2 hours. The muscles do not require the extra glycogen that a carb-loading routine stores in your body. In fact, you might end up feeling too full for a half if you have gone through a proper carb-loading routine," says the ACSM certified trainer.

Both Nath and Arora prescribe a healthy normal diet in the run-up to a half marathon. A pre-race day lunch should have 60% carbohydrates (such as rice/roti/pasta and vegetables) and a small portion of proteins (meat/cottage cheese/tofu), advises Arora. “Eat your dinner, comprising 80-90% of carbs, slightly earlier than usual the night before the race and sleep early," he adds.

For a marathon, however, it is important to follow a carb-loading routine. While Arora prefers a five-day carb-loading period, Nath is happy with a three-day routine. “In the three days prior to the race, ensure you do not skimp on carbs, salt or water. Your protein intake could stay at the levels you are normally at. The day prior to the race, it’s best to avoid heavy meals, meat, poultry, fish, eggs and stick to simple vegetarian food," says Nath.

TAPERING AND RECOVERY

Tapering is not just about reducing the intensity of training, it is also about focusing on these five things

Rest and sleep well

Spend less time on feet, especially the last two-three days before the race.

Sleep for at least 8 hours per day in the week preceding the race. If you can’t get a whole week, try getting proper sleep at least on the two days before race day.

Eat right

With extra rest and less mileage, be careful of what and how much you eat. Even if you haven’t been eating right during training, watch your diet at least in the final week. Focus on a normal diet that includes salads, dal, roti, rice and vegetables. Eat optimum portions during the tapering days.

Stay hydrated

Drink plenty of water through the last week. If possible, also start drinking sports energy drinks two days prior to race day. This will keep you hydrated through your run and help avoid cramps.

Build strength and flexibility

Focus on building strength and flexibility by weight training, stretching and yoga.

Reduce your anxiety

As the race day draws closer, you are likely to get anxious. Meditate, watch a movie, spend time with family and friends, read a book: all of these could help you get over the anxiety.

POST-RACE RECOVERY

Things you need to do to help the body recover after completing the race

u Do 15 minutes of full-body stretching.

u Make sure you have protein-rich food (ideally, a smoothie or a bar) within 20 minutes of finishing the race.

u Sleep for at least 8 hours every night for the next two-three days. This is the best way to rest your fatigued muscles and mind.

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