Tapering is one of the most essential components of any marathon training plan, but it can also be one of the trickiest to implement.
Runners are sometimes afraid of cutting back on training. This is usually because they worry that taking time off right before a big race will erase all of their hard work.
Marathon taper is the time where your body gets a chance to ADAPT to all of the hard work that you’ve been doing. If you skip out on tapering, you are going in to the race with your body in a deficit, rather than in top form.
Tapering should be a welcome relief after hitting your peak weak mileage and intensity. Instead, the sudden free time sends some runners in to a tailspin.
It’s the time when your mind plays tricks. Was that a niggle or nag in your left knee? Did you power through enough long runs? What do you do with this abundant free time?!
OMG, slow down and let’s chat.
When it comes to tapering truth is that reducing your mileage is critical not only for a full recovery before your race, but also for achieving optimal performance.
In this article, you’ll learn everything you need to know about marathon tapering and I’ll also answer all your pressing questions when it comes to this important marathon training element.
What is Tapering for a Marathon? And Why Is It Important?
Tapering is the process of gradually decreasing the volume of your training in preparation for a race. It’s an essential part of every marathon training plan (and half marathon and 10K and 5K training plan!)
You must be wondering though, why is it important and why should I do it?
When you cut back on the number of miles you run, your muscles can repair, and your glycogen stores can return to normal. This is important for absorbing your training and getting those race-day PRs!
But don’t confuse tapering with taking a break and resting. Some rest is part of the process of ‘tapering.’ But, if you only entirely rest for the weeks before your marathon, you’ll lose important biological changes you made during your training.
During a taper, levels of muscle glycogen, enzymes, antioxidants, hormones, and other things that are depleted by a lot of exercise return to normal.
It means that on race day, you should feel bursting with energy because the body is relaxed and primed to run. You’ve decreased the odds that you will show up over-trained and unable to get the most out of yourself.
Over a few weeks, exhausted muscles have a chance to rebuild stronger, and micro-tears that were formed during training can heal.
This is based on a review of 50 studies that were published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise in 2003.
Another research published in 2014 found that tapering can also improve the function of fast-twitch muscle fibers, which can lead to faster race times.
Benefits of Marathon Taper
A 2007 study showed that tapering provided up to a 5.6% performance improvement! Meanwhile another study showed that it increased time to fatigue by up to 22%. So yes the benefits are very, very real.
The top five main goals of marathon tapering are to:
- Increasing muscle glycogen to ensure they return to normal and are loaded with fuel for race day
- Reducing the risk of overtraining right before a race
- Minimizing any stress on your mind and body, which allows you to be fresher.
- Increasing muscle recovery and reducing muscle fatigue
- Improving the function of fast-twitch muscle fibers to assist in faster race times
When Should You Start Tapering for a Marathon?
As discussed in peak week training, traditional training plans used to call for a taper of 3 to sometimes even 4 weeks.
I certainly tested out that style for a few of my races wayyyyy back when (yup like 2002-2007). For my first few races, I had no idea how I should feel and I was so amped up, it probably didn’t matter.
But by the time I got to my second marathon, my legs felt heavy, my brain felt not quite ready. I was all around sluggish.
Since transitioning to the 2 week taper plan that’s a thing of the past AND it also means taper madness is less likely!
With 2 weeks, you’re not forced to relax, but allowed to relax. You’re opened up to prepare mentally for the race. Your body is still in training mode rather than reverting to a maintenance mode.
Consistently in training hundreds of runners over the last decade, I’ve found this has been the sweet spot for most runners.
2 or 3 Week Marathon Taper
A new study in 2021 showed that a three week marathon taper provided more race day benefits. This was in fact a large study of over 158,000 runners.
However, what the study really proved to many of us was:
- You need a structured taper
- Higher mileage runners often do better with the longer taper
- Many runners try a long taper, but don’t follow it very well
- The long taper may actually involve a lower week on week 3, but still your longest run 2 weeks out
How Do You Taper for a Marathon?
Taper does not mean plop on the couch and bust out the Cool Ranch Doritos (weren’t those the best?!).
Taper does not meant catch up on 42 overdue work and home projects.
Taper does not mean switching to lots of other workouts because you aren’t running.
There are many tips to tapering for a marathon (that we’ll discuss later) but essentially there is a two-fold approach to tapering. Let’s look at what those two components are:
- Keep your schedule the same, run the same number of days, foam roll, etc
- Decreasing total mileage by the notes below
- Including quality speedwork
- Reduce any heavy lifting the two weeks before your race
- Eliminate all weights the week of your race (you can keep some core work)
- Learning to carbohydrate load correctly
- Doing a final shakeout run
How Should I Cut My Mileage While Tapering for a Marathon?
While tapering, you want to cut back on your volume just enough to help you recover and adapt, but not so much that you feel tired.
- Based on studies you should reduce your overall mileage by 40-60%.
- Week 1 of taper is a reduction of 40% from your highest volume week
- Week 2 of taper is a reduction of up to 60% from your highest volume week
- What we lose in distance, we make up for by continuing with speed workouts. Just reduced accordingly to total mileage reductions.
How Should I Do Speedwork While Tapering for a Marathon?
When tapering for a marathon, you should continue to incorporate speed workouts. The goal is to maintain muscle tension, so your legs don’t feel flat on race day.
The key is to ensure that these speed sessions maintain the same level of intensity, but they should be shorter in duration.
A few examples:
- Long run might include 3 x 1 mile at marathon pace in a 10 mile run (if you had previously done something like 6 or 7 miles at marathon pace)
- During the week you might do 5 x 1 minute at 5K pace (if you had previously done 10-12 reps at that pace)
- Running strides at the end of a couple runs
Sample Two-Week Marathon Tapering Plan
A two-week taper is a blip in your overall training, which means you’ve got to use the time wisely. Here’s a little breakdown of how what a 2-week marathon taper leading up to race week can look like:
Day 1 – Complete recovery from your longest/hardest run.
Day 2 – Get your pre-race massage scheduled, at least 6 days before. Enjoy a short run with some fartleks.
Day 3 – Head out for a medium distance EASY run. Do your hip strength exercises.
Day 4 – Time for another short run with a few speed pick ups. Do the IT Band Lunge Matrix.
Day 5 – Slow it all down with some restorative yoga.
Day 6 – Short easy run and a final test run of what to eat before your race. More hip exercises.
Day 7 – Long run (could be 8 miles for a half marathon or 10-12 for a full)
Day 8 – Complete recovery day. Plan out meals that are anti-inflammatory for the week.
Day 9 – Enjoy a walk, a hike, a yoga flow or bike ride. Keep it easy and fun. Create your race day plan (see below)
Day 10 – Short run with a few speed pick ups. Great day to assess your goals and set your mantra.
Day 11 – Another good day for restorative yoga and fully planning your race outfit and needs (checklist here)
Day 12 – Shakeout run can be done today or tomorrow
Day 13 – Head to the expo, stay off your feet, hydrate with electrolytes, relax!
Day 14 – Race day!!
This is time to de-stress to the max and take care of your body.Have your best race ever with these taper tips! #bibchat #running Click To Tweet
Why Do I Feel Sick While Tapering?
It’s very common to develop a cold in the days before a race. Science suggests this is because the body is no longer adrenaline focused pushing you through weeks of training and thus the immune system kicks back into action because it’s no longer being suppressed.
Don’t fret, nearly everyone finds that in these two weeks if they focus on recovery they are ready to rock and roll race morning. I say that these colds are the body’s way of ensuring we actually follow our taper plan!!
Am I Eating Too Much?
Don’t stress about calories during race taper. Yes, you’re running less and technically needless, but hunger pains also decrease after that first week of lower mileage.
If you don’t go carbo loading crazy and focus on choosing foods to help your body recover, you’ll be just fine.
You want to show up on race day well fueled, not sluggish from restricting your food. Focus on eating when hungry and getting in lots of vegetables for the nutrients and anti-inflammatory recovery properties.
Marathon Tapering Checklist – For Every Runner
Start After Your Longest Run
Start your marathon taper two weeks before your marathon race day. It should start the day after your longest run, which is typically a 20+ mile run.
Lower mileage runners may not need to cut back on volume as much. High mileage runners should stick to the same number of days per week and reduce the volume of each run. It is essential to lessen the intensity but not fully eradicate it.
As I mentioned above, continue to do speed work at the same intensity but for a shorter duration. The goal is to maintain muscle tension, so your legs don’t feel flat on race day. Utilize a short fartlek workout to help calm your nerves and remind your body what marathon pace feels like.
Running while tapering should be done at a pace of one and a half to two minutes slower per mile than marathon goal pace. The only exception to this is your marathon-goal-pace run.
Don’t Reduce Volume Excessively
Avoid drastically reducing volume, as this will disrupt your ‘rhythm’ of training and the cycle that your body is accustomed to. Meaning follow the plan listed above of progressively reducing your mileage 40-60%.
No need to drop to 100% no running.
Even if the change is going from a lot of training to a lot of rest, our bodies don’t appreciate things that are drastically different from the norm.
Many athletes discover that if they over-rest, they experience a marked lack of energy on race day as if they’ve forgotten how to put in a hard effort.
Still Do a Long Run
Keeping your body in routine and sharpening your endurance is still important throughout the marathon taper. If you drop the long runs too much and too soon, you can over-taper and feel flat.
I recommend an 8-mile run for a half marathon or a 10-12 mile run for a marathon a week prior to your race day.
Avoid Anything New or Too Challenging
The taper period is about recovery and consolidation, so avoid anything that’s new or too challenging during these two weeks.
What About Taper Madness?
As noted with a short race taper it’s less likely you’ll find yourself craving more runs, but that doesn’t mean you won’t have a little taper madness.
“Taper madness” coined by long time runners refers to the days leading up to the race when your brain starts to play tricks on you and with longer tapers where you feel completely out of whack due to the massive mileage drop.
Suddenly, things that have never once bothered you in training will hurt. Why are you feeling your big toe in your favorite shoes? Why is your knee tingling? Why did you get a Rudolph sized zit on your nose?!
I can’t answer the last one, but I can say it’s all totally normal. Knowing you aren’t alone is the first step in letting go of the stress that’s likely creating all your issues. A few other tips that work well:
- Find a mantra, like “all is well” and use it all week
- When something hurts, remind yourself it’s likely stress and will be fine on race day (99% of the time this is true)
- Get a massage, allow yourself to relax and treat your body well
Deep breathe, the big day is finally just around the corner. As taper finishes, it’s very normal to start feeling nervous and surprise that can actually be a really good thing.
Nerves actually prime your brain and get you focused on the task at hand, so learn to harness them for your benefit.
- Channel the energy to drive you to hit a brand new distance or pace.
- Recognize it as adrenaline and know it’s a good thing, that’s what pushes you just a bit harder than in training.
- Trust that once the race starts you’ll be glad for that extra energy boost of adrenaline.
- Meditate. Ok I know I said harness the nerves, but if you’re ruminating all week then sitting down for a minute just to breathe is going to help you get a grip on what really matters. You may have trained hard, but it is just a race.
Race Day Pre-Planning
Another way to tackle nerves is to do some planning, give you brain something tangible to think about. Here are a few key things which will also help on race morning:
- Checkout the parking situation or know where you can be dropped off
- Plan a specific spot for spectators during and after the race
- If traveling pack your pre-race food and double check all your must haves (here is a great printable)
- Lay out all of your gear and pin on the race bib
Taper doesn’t have to be the maddening, horrible time that we often portray on social media. I mean the jokes are still funny and much like being a bridezilla, you’re given a grace period in the week preceding the race. You’re welcome.
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