Taper Madness! The art of Carb-Loading and Keeping Sane!

Yeah, the training is basically over, this 2-3 weeks to go till marathon period usually starts with huge elation, mixed with relief that you have made it this far. Then, the reality hits, especially in the final week, with less training, and anxiety about the race, you become a very difficult person to live with or even to be around!!

…The final taper week is even worse, you are a nightmare to live with!….

Initially it feels great to be doing slightly less training, 20+ mile long runs become 15 miles and the mid-week long runs reduces too. Suddenly you have extra time, but you are also still feeling hungry and enjoying your food, and running enough to still be sociable with your mates. You are feeling positive at this point, in your last long run you felt strong and you have decided upon your best marathon pace. All looking and feeling good!

The 2nd week of taper is even better, so much more time, and still feeling good. The last efforts session is feeling spritely, then its a rest day, when before it was a run. The last long run is only 10 miles, is that too much, is it too little. Maybe I should blast it?! The doubts start to creep in. Maybe you had a week off ill in the training plan, maybe you had a niggle and had to back off. Have I done enough? Maybe I should do another 20 mile run! I’m feel like I’ve put on weight! Maybe that pace is too optimistic?

The final taper week is even worse, you are a nightmare to live with! My gluts are hurting, my calves feel tight, I feel very heavy, I’m sure my throat is tickling. But you know what, actually this is all completely normal!!

What should you do to prevent the doubts creeping in? How do you stay positive? Most importantly, how do you stay on the right side of your partner?

  1. Use the time to catch up with friends. Have a coffee, go for lunch, spend some positive time with the kids.
  2. Use the time to familiarise yourself with the race. Check out the start area, plan your route to the start, where are the water and feed stations, where will your friends and family be watching. Check out the profile, where are the hills and down hills, where can you make up a bit of time.
  3. Plan your carbo-loading. Buy the food for carb-loading, and plan what you are going to eat when. Calculate how much carbohydrate you need per day. Even better, do the cooking at home!
  4. Plan your pre-race meal, plan your breakfast, these two meals are crucial to your race going well, but don’t leave your eating until then.
  5. Chat to your coach, or others with experience to decide on your marathon pace. Chat about logistics with friends.
  6. Do not run any extra. At this point it will make no difference! It will just leave you depleted and probably more confused!
There’s more to carb-loading than endless bowls of pasta, and done effectively, it is one of the best ways to get ready for the marathon, or other running and triathlon endurance events.

Carb-loading’s original incarnation was developed in the 1960s as a way of boosting athletes’ glycogen stores before endurance events. Carried out during the final week before a big race, it started with a three-day regime of low-carb diet, whilst still training, to strip the body of glycogen. Then, a few days before the race, laying off exercise and tucking into a high-carb diet instead. The theory behind this approach was that clearing out the body’s energy stores would encourage it to store much more energy than it would have done otherwise. However, the initial ‘depletion’ stage often proved exhausting, leaving runners hungry, with low morale and often depleted immune systems.

Nowadays, the most common approach to carb-loading is simply to increase the ratio of carbs in your diet three days before race day. That way, your body still has time to store up plenty of glycogen but you avoid the detrimental effects of the glycogen depletion stage.

…without sufficient extra fuelling you’re in danger of running out of energy and coming up against the dreaded “wall” or in cycling terms, “bonking”!….

Why do you need to carb-load? Your body can only store enough glycogen to sustain 90 minutes of exercise. After this point, without sufficient extra fuelling you’re in danger of running out of energy and coming up against the dreaded “wall” or in cycling terms, “bonking”! Some might say that you will use fat for this distance, so why carb-load? Yes you will burn fat, and yes its a great idea to get your body reasonably ‘fat adapted’, using long steady runs in training, however with a road marathon, and similar intensity events, you will be using a lot of carbohydrate. (Renee McGregor, Training Food, p56 and 90).

What should I eat and when? In general, you need around 5-7g of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight or 60 per cent of your daily calorie intake from carbohydrates. This usually works out at around 1,500kcal from carbohydrate per day for most women and 1,800kcal for men.

However, during the carb-loading period (3 days to go), aim to up your carbohydrate intake to 8-10g per kilogram of body weight (Anita Bean, The Complete Guide to Sports Nutrition, (A C & Black, 2003). For a 70kg runner, that works out at between 560g and 700g per day.

To reach your carbohydrate target, try to eat little and often rather than just super-sizing your usual meals. Also remember that it isn’t necessary to binge eat and hugely increase your daily calorie intake as a whole (I know its nice to have that excuse!) – it’s simply about increasing the proportion of carbs on your plate and reducing the fat and protein. See p21 and p91 of Training Food for ideas.


For a quick way to top up your carb count, try one of these quick-and-easy snacks. Each is crammed with 75g (300kcal) of carbohydrate:

  • 1 large handful of raisins, dried apricots or other dried fruit
  • 2 energy bars
  • 3 slices of bread thinly spread with honey
  • 4 thick slices of bread or toast
  • 5 rice cakes spread with jam

Energy drinks with a high carbohydrate content are also a great way to add extra if you are feeling full, or just fruit juice which is high in sugars, so adding to your carbohydrate intake.

Should I still eat protein? Adding protein to your meals will give you an extra energy boost too. Protein slows the digestion of carbohydrates, lowering the GI (Glycaemic Index) of the meal and encouraging the body to release energy slowly and steadily rather than in a quick hit. Protein-packed carbs are beans, lentils and peas or pop a small chicken breast on a large portion of rice for the same GI-lowering effect.

Water Your body also stores around 3g of water for every gram of glycogen so during the carb-loading phase it’s not uncommon to gain extra weight (around 1-2kg). But don’t panic, and don’t complain to your partner – this extra weight is primarily made up of the water and carbohydrate you’ll need to drive you to that huge personal achievement, so you should use it all up and more on race day!