The Art (and some Science) of the Marathon Taper

Marathon training is hard. Very hard. You are pushing your body to its limits, running mileage that makes your friends’ jaws drop, training intensively for months, working toward the goal of finishing that 26.2 miles with pride.  Whether you’re an elite athlete trying to win, an age group champion trying to set a new personal record, or looking to achieve your goal of running your first marathon, you’ve been following your training plan to the letter. And now your plan says it is time to taper.

Taper 14

Some athletes will say that the taper is the most challenging part of marathon training. Your body has adapted to the stress that you have been piling on week after week, so a hard workout or a long run doesn’t even faze you. But cutting back your mileage? Slowing down? Actually resting? That might be just a little scary.

Part of the challenge really is physical. As your race approaches, you may feel a normal amount of anxiety about your ability and your readiness. How would you normally handle stress? By going for a run, of course, an outlet that is temporarily limited or cut off for you.

It is probably the mental aspect of the taper than can really get to you though. After training so hard for so long, it is hard not to feel like you might be losing your edge as you cut back your mileage and intensity. Many runners make the mistake of running too fast or too long, because they either feel they might be losing fitness, or because their legs feel so good, they let themselves go with the flow.

The point of tapering, of course, is to allow your body the time to rest and repair after all of that hard training. With a proper taper, which includes and appropriate nutrition plan, you will arrive at the start of your marathon well fueled, fully hydrated, and with fresh legs, ready to follow your race day plan and achieve your marathon goals. Here is a week by week plan to get you there.

Marathon Taper Week Three

While some experts have differing opinions, there is a general consensus that you should cut your mileage back to about 80-90% when you are three weeks away from your marathon.

Obviously, this is all relative to your total mileage during your training. If you’ve been running high mileage, 100 miles a week or more, your first week of tapering may still total 80 to 90 miles.

On the other hand, if your mileage topped out at 50, you should plan to run about 40-45 miles during this week.

You should cut a few miles off of your long run this week too. Depending on the distance of your longest run, plan to cut about 10-20%. If you topped off at 20 miles, shorten your long run to about 16-18.

Intensity: At this point in training, all of your higher intensity runs should be targeted at your marathon. This is not the time for 400 meter intervals. Marathon pace tempo runs, with some faster intervals of half marathon pace are great for this week of the taper.

Nutrition: You don’t need to make many changes during this week of the taper. Hopefully, throughout your training you have been eating a diet rich in complex carbohydrates, lean proteins, and healthy fats.  Your focus for the last three weeks of your training will be to build glycogen stores, which will help to fuel you through your race. This will be accomplished by reducing total calories as you reduce your mileage, but keeping up a high carbohydrate intake.

Common Mistakes: Frequent mistakes during this period including cutting your mileage by too much, eating too many junk or “white” carbohydrates, or keeping the intensity too high. Remember, with the exception of one or two marathon/half marathon pace runs, all your other runs should be easy, moderate distance runs.

Marathon Tapering Week Two

This week you should reduce your mileage to about 60-70% of your maximum. This is actually easier than the previous week, because you will take a significant number of miles off of your long run, to about 50% of your peak distance. The rest of your runs should be trimmed accordingly.

Intensity: This week you will complete one moderate intensity run at a reduced distance. This workout should again be marathon specific.  This is a great time to practice your marathon pace, with a little half marathon pace or slightly faster thrown in. Try to complete this workout toward the beginning of the week, so that you have at least 10 days until your marathon to recover.

Nutrition: This week, because your mileage is significantly less than at your peak, you should cut down on your calorie intake, while continuing to eat complex carbs. Protein and fats are still important, just make sure they are high quality, and that you reduce your portion sizes.

Common Mistakes: Eating too much, which can lead to a bloated feeling and possible weight gain. Running at too high of an intensity. Keep it slow and easy, with the exception of the one medium intensity workout.

 Marathon Taper Week One

The final week of the taper may very well be the most difficult. Your body is rested and feeling strong, tempting you to run “just a little bit farther.” Your continued high carbohydrate diet is doing it’s job, topping off your glycogen stores in preparation for the race, but it also increases your fluid retention (which is also good), but may lead to a small weight gain.

This week you should reduce your mileage to about a third of your maximum (excluding marathon day). Your daily runs are short, and you can take an extra day off.  It’s a good idea to run a little the day before the marathon, just about one to three miles, to help blood flow in your legs and to help reduce tension.

Intensity: Try one short mid-level intensity during the week. After a short warm up, run a couple miles at marathon pace, then follow that up with a short cool down. This will reinforce your goal pace again. You can use this run as a dress rehearsal, wearing your race shoes and clothing, just to make sure everything fits and feels right.

Nutrition: With the reduced mileage you will want to cut down again on your calories, but continue the quality carbohydrate consumption. Don’t forget a little protein and fat, which are important, but the focus this week is really on the carbs. They will help you with hydration too, so make sure to drink plenty of liquid all week, and, as you get closer to race day, avoid alcohol and coffee consumption. They both promote dehydration, so if you do indulge, do so with moderation.

Common Mistakes: Too much intensity during your last few workouts. Eating too much or not eating quality food. Remember that a little weight gain is normal, and indicates that you have been eating and drinking enough. Your body will use the glycogen that you have stored, which in turn retains fluid which will keep you hydrated.

Follow these tips and you will arrive at the start line well rested, fueled, and adequately hydrated, and ready to furn a successful marathon. For race day tips to get you through those 26.2 miles, check out this post.

Do you have any tips for the taper (marathon or shorter race)? Did you make any of the common mistakes during your taper?

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Comments

  1. says

    What a great detailed post! I actually don’t mind the taper – I welcome it :) I enjoy that time before the race where I can cut mileage, enjoy a bit more time and relaxation and mentally prepare for the big race. During taper time I love looking up inspirational videos, or I watch course videos of the race I’m doing to get pumped up!
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