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.
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.
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.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.
MORE: 5 Common Mistakes When Training For a Half or Full Marathon