How To Taper For A Marathon

How To Taper For A Marathon: A Complete Guide

Whether you have a strong affection for it or a strong aversion, the marathon taper constitutes an indispensable element of your training regimen. However, it can also be one of the most challenging aspects to master. Tread too lightly, and you risk feeling lethargic and unprepared, but overdo it, and you might find yourself excessively fatigued when the race day arrives. The question looms: How long should your marathon taper be, and what should it entail?

The Scientific Foundation of the Marathon Taper

In a noteworthy 2007 meta-analysis, which boasted a high level of evidence, published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, a comprehensive examination of various studies on tapering strategies for swimmers, runners, and cyclists was conducted. Across all three athletic disciplines, it was revealed that a two-week taper yielded the most desirable results, whereas extending it to three weeks led to a diminishing dose-response relationship, implying that it was effective but less so than the two-week approach.

Why two weeks, you may wonder? The answer is multifaceted, primarily because the exact mechanisms of why tapering works are not fully elucidated. Nonetheless, the prevailing belief is that a two-week taper allows for sufficient recovery and the replenishment of muscle glycogen without compromising aerobic or neuromuscular fitness—both of which can leave an athlete feeling sluggish on race day.

Excessive tapering, on the other hand, triggers a detraining effect, which is diametrically opposed to what you want to achieve before your marathon.

During a two-week taper, the mileage is scaled back by 40-60% compared to its peak during training. This tapering process is progressive, meaning that volume is gradually reduced. Typically, this entails a 60% reduction in the two weeks leading up to the race, followed by a 40-50% reduction during race week (excluding the marathon itself). The goal is to decrease the duration of each session rather than altering the frequency of runs, which could leave an athlete feeling physically or mentally stale.

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Intensity will decrease in proportion to volume, but significant reductions should not occur until race week. For instance, if you were performing 30-40 minutes of high-intensity training three weeks prior, you might reduce it to 20-25 minutes at the same intensity two weeks before the race. Managing intensity can involve adjusting rest intervals to enable sustained high-intensity work without necessitating prolonged recovery periods.

In light of research findings, a taper typically yields an average improvement of 2%. While this percentage might not appear substantial at first glance, for a marathoner aiming for a 3:30 finish time, a 2% enhancement translates to a 3:26 finish—a personal record that many runners would enthusiastically embrace.

Nevertheless, in the realm of exercise science, theory alone is insufficient. The practical application of a marathon taper is equally crucial. So, let’s delve into what a marathon taper looks like in practice!


Three Weeks To Marathon

Hold off on celebrating the taper just yet! This week is less about tapering and more about recuperating from a strenuous workout. The volume will slightly decrease, by approximately 85-90%. If you were peaking at 50 miles per week, you’ll reduce it to around 45 miles. Part of this reduction will come from your long run, which will decrease by about 80-90%. For instance, if your last long run was 20 miles, you’ll aim for 16-18 miles this week.

This week also marks your final substantial workout, which might include a lengthy session at marathon pace and/or a sustained tempo run at half marathon pace.

However, there’s an important caveat: if you’ve experienced poor results with previous tapers, this week may not differ significantly from your peak training. It still shouldn’t be your highest-intensity week, but you may maintain closer to 90-95% of your usual volume, only slightly reducing intensity.

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If your marathon training includes strength training, it’s time to begin tapering that too. Start by decreasing the number of sets and reps while slightly reducing the weight used.


Two Weeks To Marathon

Within the 8-14 days leading up to the race, your marathon taper officially commences. You’ll aim to reduce your training volume by 60%. Intensity will also decrease, as workouts focus more on maintaining efficient aerobic systems. Your last long run before the race will be significantly shorter, likely in the range of 10-12 miles (though the specific distance may vary depending on your overall training time).

While intensity naturally decreases with volume, you shouldn’t eliminate it entirely. A challenging workout should align with your race objectives. For example, very short intervals may strain the wrong energy systems too close to the marathon. Instead, consider threshold intervals as a preferable option over a continuous tempo run.


Week Of The Marathon Event

If you’ve been incorporating strides or short 20-30 second bursts into your runs, continue doing so. According to Steve Magness’s “The Science of Running,” aim for brief 15-20 second strides to optimize muscle tension. These strides will maintain the desired “pop” in your legs without significantly taxing your anaerobic system.

Lastly, a race week workout about four or five days before the race is essential. Avoid traditional sharpening workouts, like 400m repeats, which rely on anaerobic energy pathways and strain fast-twitch muscles. Instead, opt for a workout that mimics your marathon race pace. This type of workout will fine-tune your neuromuscular system and help you recall the feeling of your race pace one final time.

If you usually run the day before your long run, consider a brief shakeout run the day before the race. A shakeout run is exceptionally short, lasting only about 10-15 minutes, to minimize the depletion of your energy reserves.

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What If The Taper Doesn’t Deliver As Expected?

If you still experience fatigue and believe you required more rest prior to race day, it’s possible you might have encountered overtraining. Overtraining can arise not only from pushing too hard in the three weeks leading up to a race but is more likely a result of prolonged periods of excessive volume and/or intensity throughout your entire training regimen.

If you felt lethargic and undertrained, it might be worth considering introducing a slightly higher level of intensity during the taper. This doesn’t mean completely disregarding the taper but rather being judicious in your approach. For instance, if you significantly reduced your training volume two weeks before the race, you might discover that incorporating a slightly higher level of intensity could benefit you in your upcoming marathon taper.


Final Words – How To Taper For A Marathon

In conclusion, the marathon taper is a critical component of your training regimen, and finding the right balance can be a challenging endeavor. The science behind it suggests that a two-week taper is generally optimal, allowing for recovery and glycogen replenishment without sacrificing fitness. However, practical application is just as important.

The weeks leading up to the marathon demand careful planning. Three weeks before the race, it’s about recovering from intense workouts and making slight volume reductions. Two weeks out, the taper officially begins, with a significant decrease in both volume and intensity. Race week is all about fine-tuning and maintaining muscle tension without overtaxing your body.

However, if you find that the taper isn’t working as expected, it may be a sign of overtraining. In such cases, a slight increase in intensity during the taper might be worth considering. Ultimately, the key is to strike the right balance between rest and preparation to ensure you’re in peak condition for your marathon race day.

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