Training for a marathon, like many other endurance events, can be daunting. The preparation, planning and time commitment needed is ultimately rewarded once you cross the finish line. The journey to a marathon is sometimes greater than the race itself. If done properly, you will see your physical and mental levels reach heights that you could not have dreamed of when you started your training.
The hardest part for many athletes is planning out the tapering portion of their program, which is interesting because it is by far the shortest amount of both time and mileage. Two-time Olympic marathoner and co-author of “Advanced Marathoning” Pete Pfitzinger writes that, “Studies have shown that a well-planned taper leads to improved running economy and increases in muscle strength and power.”
Indeed, how well you taper can easily determine whether you meet, exceed or fall below your performance goals. How best to taper for a marathon can be extremely subjective and highly personalized depending on your adaptation ability, race experience, training ramp rate and even your personal physiology. Over the course of this post, I will lay out several key components of a good taper so that you can apply them to your own marathon taper as needed.
What is a marathon taper?
A marathon taper is a gradual decline in mileage that precedes the event, giving the athlete time to rest, recover and allow proper absorption of their final build phase of training (generally speaking this means your final 20- to 22-mile long run). Every marathon training routine should end with a taper roughly two to three weeks heading into the race. The taper has been scientifically proven to help improve performance between three to five percent (which can be the difference between a PR or a Boston Qualifying time for many runners!). During this phase, your training is not geared toward physical improvement, in fact, there are very little fitness gains you can make this close to race day. It’s more about allowing your body to catch up to itself. In other words, you will be cutting back your mileage to allow muscle improvement as well as allowing your internal system (glycogen levels, hormones, enzymes, immune system) to achieve optimal levels prior to race day.
When a taper starts, your body is somewhat depleted. You would have put in a lot of work as you approach this stage. Remember: the taper is meant to re-energize you.
Like anything else in training, your taper process needs to be personalized. You might want to go the route of a three-week taper versus two weeks or cut back drastically on mileage while maintaining intensity. Another option is to tweak your mileage just enough and cut back on intensity. For the best results, you should be following a marathon training plan or working with a coach. But if you are on your own, you can choose what works for you. It might take some trial and error, but once you figure it out, you will be golden.
A taper should start the day, or the following week after your last longest run. Typically that run will be in the 20- to 23-mile range. Whenever you do start cutting back, you should look to reduce your long run into the low teens. An ideal number would be 13 to 14 miles. You can even go lower if you want to. At this stage, any long run you do is not going to add any physical improvements for you. Now is not the time to try and slip in some last minute endurance training—that is a guaranteed way to show up on race day fatigued.
Your overall weekly mileage will also start to go down. Ideally, look for a 20- to 25-percent reduction in overall mileage. The cut back in mileage also will pertain to your individual workouts. During your taper, make sure to do a (shorter than usual) tempo run every week, ideally at your goal marathon pace. For example, if you have been doing 30-minute tempos, move that to 20 minutes. If you want to taper for three weeks, then you can add a tempo run one week and an interval workout (i.e. a track workout) another. For intervals, if you have been getting in six to 10 sets, move that to three to six. Keep the pace the same. Just cut back on the numbers completed and the time on your feet.
During taper weeks, look to add in one extra day of rest. Rest means a complete day off. As I tell my athletes, a day off means a day off. Do nothing active. Rest.
Marathon Race Week Strategy
For the week of your marathon, you will be cutting back your mileage quite a bit. Typically, one short speed workout four days out followed by a tempo run of short time and distance. A good example of marathon race week might look like this:
Sunday: 10 mile run
Tuesday: 15-to 20-minute warm up followed by 8 x 1 minute at half marathon pace with 90 second slow jog recovery. 10-minute cool down
Wednesday: 15-minute warm up followed by 10-minute tempo at marathon goal pace plus 15 to 20 seconds. If your goal pace is 8:00 then your tempo goal pace is 8:15 to 8:20. Cool down for 10 minutes
Friday: 4-mile run (can be switched with Thursday)
Some coaches don’t like taking back-to-back days off. Some like getting in a run the day before the marathon. In the end, and as previously stated, find out what works best for you. To check out some of my marathon programs, click here.
A common mistake is to get too nervous about losing “it.” The “it” is the edge and fitness levels you would have achieved up to this point in training. How to avoid that from happening? One word: Relax. Or two words: Chill out. If you start to feel lethargic and “out of it” in the several days before your marathon, that is actually a good sign that you are tapering well. You should notice a marked rise in energy starting the day or two before the race. Just be patient.
Just remember that the taper is your friend. Don’t make it your enemy. Use it wisely. Embrace it. And my last words of advice, don’t use this time to tweak things. Look at this time of rest and rejuvenation as something you’ve earned that will help you have a great marathon day.