As you enter the final weeks of training for your marathon, the bulk of the training is done and the longest of the long runs should be just about complete. Going into the last 2-3 weeks before the marathon, it is time to taper. Blake Butler, PT, MPT, talks about perfecting the marathon taper.
The taper is the final preparation before the marathon. Often times, runners see this as a time to drastically reduce their weekly mileage and just put in some easy miles to rest the body. Yes – rest, recovery, and rejuvenation are key goals of the taper as you prepare to run 26.2 miles. However, if your goal is to compete and not just complete the marathon, this is not a time to get lazy with your training. Taking it too easy during your taper may cause the body to come out flat and sluggish on race day, resulting in a lackluster performance and keeping you from reaching your goals. Taper for too long and you may miss out on the fitness gains you could achieve if you choose a shorter taper. The taper is more art than science as there is no one size fits all approach.
As I mentioned, the taper is the final preparation period where you reduce your volume (total mileage) each week. Maintaining your regular running routine and intensity during the taper is key to producing a peak performance on race day, just at a reduced volume. Emphasis of your quality speed/tempo work sessions should be modified to be race specific to your goal pace so your body is ready to run 26.2 miles at the pace you are targeting. (For example: why run 6 x 1 mile at all out 6:30/mile pace when your goal pace is 8:00/mile. A better option may be running 3 x 2 miles at goal pace with ½-1 mile easy recovery). During the final 1-2 weeks before your race, consider cutting out your activities such as Cross-Fit, Zumba, boot camp, basketball… to reduce the risk of unnecessary injury. You have put in all this training so don’t mess it up now. Keep your cross-training more run-specific. If you are used to cross-training on your off days, incline treadmill walking and moderate intensity shorter duration bike rides and elliptical are good replacements options to be done in place of the strenuous fitness classes. If you are doing run-specific strengthening, you can continue 2x/week until race week. During race week, either cut out the strength training altogether or just do one session early in the week with high rep/low resistance sets. Consult your running coach or running PT for more details on what exercises are best.
Regarding the length of the taper and exactly how to taper, there are many variations and schools of thought. Coming up with the perfect taper varies from runner to runner as everyone is different in their individual deficits and strengths. Most people opt for a 3-week taper, others will taper 2 weeks or less. If you have a great base of fitness, you should do just fine with a longer taper. You have already put in the hard work, should easily be able to maintain your fitness level with the reduction in volume, and will likely not improve significantly by pushing yourself hard for another week.
On the other hand, if your fitness is not necessarily where it should be and you are still seeing significant gains week to week, you may be better served by opting for a shorter taper so that you can continue to improve your level of fitness before starting your taper. I advise against tapering less than 10 days to 2 weeks since it takes on average 10 days for physiological adaptation to occur following a quality/strenuous workout to see the benefits. Another variable you may need to consider is if you are battling an injury and the body may require additional rest and recovery. In this case, a longer taper and possibly even complete rest other than some biking and elliptical to maintain cardiovascular fitness may be best so that you can allow time for the injury to heal as much as possible and survive the marathon and cross the finish line on race day.
Here are some general guidelines to consider for your taper:
3 weeks before the race:
- Reduce total mileage volume to 80-90% of your current peak mileage and long run distance should also be 80-90% of your longest run
2 weeks before the race:
- Reduce total mileage to 60-75% of your peak mileage week before the taper
- If only doing a 2 week taper: reduce weekly mileage to 70-75% of peak mileage
- Shorten the long run accordingly
- Take extra time off if nursing an injury. You want to give yourself the best chance to finish the race. The bulk of the work is done, getting in one more long run or hard tempo run will likely be more detrimental than helpful at this point if you are running with an injury.
1 week before the race:
- Volume of individual runs during race week should be reduced 50-60% of your usual runs during the week
- No long run the week of the race (save that for race day)
- Day before the race: it is a good idea to put in 1-2 easy miles to calm the nerves and stimulate your nervous system to get ready to run the next day and also increase blood flow to the legs. Add in a few strides (fast/peppy pace for 20 seconds with a 40 second recovery jog) at the end of your run.
- Hydration: should be emphasized all week, not just the day before the race or you will be up all night going to the bathroom
- Rest: get plenty of sleep 2 nights before the race (this is the most important night to get rest, especially since it can be difficult to get a good night of sleep the night before a big race). Performance falters if you are not well-rested.
Best of luck and happy running!
More information: Marathon Help: I’m tapering and I hurt!
Blake is a Physical Therapist and member of the Running Program Team at TRIA Orthopaedic Center in Bloomington. He is an avid runner and triathlete and is a level 1 certified triathlon coach (USAT) and running coach (RRCA). Blake has completed 1 ironman-distance triathlon (HITS –Waconia 2014), 6 marathons (including the 2014 Boston Marathon) and 12+ half marathons in addition to shorter distance triathlons and road races. He also enjoys coaching soccer, baseball/softball and the Waconia Kids Tri Club that he started in 2014 (including his oldest 3 of 4 children).