Marathon Tapering Guide

by admin | Last Updated: November 14, 2020
In this marathon tapering guide I’m going to try and provide you with everything you need to know to prepare you for your next marathon. I hope that this will help first time marathon runners whilst acting as a reference for those that are more experienced.

There are many questions surrounding the marathon taper. Why should I taper? How long should I taper? Do I completely or partially rest? Is cross training a viable option to maintain fitness? Hopefully all your questions will be answered in this guide.

Tapering is simple and easy, yet should not be ignored. Firstly, lets define the taper. Surely the dictionary definition will be sufficient:

the period of decreased running milage before a marathon

In my view, the dictionary definition outlines what a taper is, but fails to give an explanation. Thus, the need for an updated definition:

the period of training, usually three weeks before a marathon, when runners cut significant distance from their training, along with changing eating patterns, ensuring adequate rest, preparing psychologically and modifying the time length and intensity to cater your individual needs

However, after stating that tapering is simple and easy it would be wrong for me to leave it at this. For the purpose of simplifying the above and acting as a quick reference point, see the tapering formula:

successful tapering = proper timing + decreased running + modified nutrition + adequate rest + mental preparation + customization + self control

Notice that the formula begins with the words ‘successful tapering’, rather than simply ‘tapering’. Most runners are concerned with only decreasing the amount they run and neglect other aspects of the taper.

Consider this, you are baking a cake that contains all the normal ingredients: flour, sugar, butter, egg and salt. While the cake will still turn out and taste good, at the end of the day there will likely still be slices of cake remaining. However, if you took time to add icing mixture and make the cake taste ‘full’, it could be considered more successful and be fully consumed within the end of the day.

The same goes for tapering. If you only decrease the amount you run and miss the less important ‘ingredients’, chances are you will finish the marathon. However, by following the full tapering formula, you will likely finish the marathon strong, with a better time and have more fun on the race day.

successful tapering means a better time + more fun

Many runners see the taper as boring and frustrating. After reading this guide, hopefully you will view it as the most enjoyable stage in your training. With running, it’s not very often you can accomplish more by doing less. Understanding why to taper is the first step in coming to terms with what lays ahead.

Why Is Tapering Important?

A more logical way to train for a marathon would be to gradually increase your training over a few months and run the race without tapering. This approach works when you only consider fitness. During marathon training your muscle power diminishes, glycogen stores are depleted and overall muscle fatigue is accumulated. The tapering period is simply to minimize the negative effects of a long distance training schedule.

Tapering will give better results for both first time and experienced marathon runners. Many professional athletes use tapering to improve their overall time. Also, your muscles will be fresh and fatigue free on race day, greatly reducing your chance of injury.

Other benefits of tapering include:

  • lactic acid production reduced
  • restoration of enzymes and antioxidants
  • rebalancing of hormones
  • strengthening immune system

The taper period will be what makes your physically strong on race day. Many runners have no problems with the physical aspect of the taper. Resisting the urge to run, staying positive and being calm is where many runners struggle.

Length Of The Taper

Choosing a suitable tapering period can be tough, given the amount of varying suggestions. Generally, advise will tell you that 1 week is not enough and more than 3 weeks is unnecessary. My training schedules feature a 3 week tapering period, however more experienced runners are encouraged to find what works best for themselves. Up until you have completed a few marathons, I would not recommend experimenting with a period less than 3 weeks.

Intensity Of The Taper

Everyone is different. Deciding how much to taper will depend on how fatigued your muscles are, the intensity of your training schedule, your age, previous injuries and how much you understand your body from previous tapers.

Tapering is a gradual process. Some training schedules take a more conservative approach than others, but generally the average distance in the tapering weeks is reduced by 50%. Running Nut training schedules use the following approach:

Running in the Taper Period

Running in the taper period should be no different than ordinary training. Some runners increase the speed of their workouts to offset the decrease in distance, either intentionally or unintentionally. Be mindful of this as running faster will defeat the purpose of tapering and will not allow your body to recover.

Listen to your body. Don’t worry about cutting short or skipping a workout if you feel tired or sluggish. The taper is all about recovering from the effects of a long distance training schedule. Remember that its not the training done in the taper that will help you on the marathon day. Rather, the gradual buildup of distance over the last few months that will get you across the finish line.

Running less than your training schedule specifies is fine, however don’t take this advice in reverse. Try not to run any more than your training schedule says, even if you feel rested and recovered. Sticking to your training schedule, being mindful of the speed in which you run your workouts and listening to your body are the key components of a successful taper.

Cutting Distance from your Training Schedule

When following a marathon training schedule, the hard work has already been done for you: simply follow what the plan says. If you do not follow a training schedule or are creating one of your own, there are a few different approaches that can be taken:

  1. Reduce the distance of workouts
  2. Reduce the frequency of workouts
  3. Both of the above

My suggestion would be to decrease the distance of runs in the first and second week of the taper leading up to the final week where a combination of both should be performed.

Psychological Aspect of the Taper

It sounds crazy to decrease your training three weeks out from a marathon. Runners struggle more psychologically in the tapering period than they do physically. To add to this, a side effect of decreased running is that you are left with a significant amount of free time.

during the taper period, running is replaced with nervous energy

It takes effort to resist running more than you should during the taper. It goes against common sense and defies the ‘train hard, run hard philosophy’. Nevertheless, there are a number of different ways in which you can make the transition from training to tapering easier.

Firstly, stick to a plan. Don’t find yourself in the first few days of tapering and decide an extra week of training will improve your fitness before the marathon. Additional and unplanned training will likely end bad, whether it be injury or not enough rest before the race. Remember its better to get to the finish line undertrained than overtrained or worse injured.

Secondly, find an activity to fill in the time that you would otherwise be training. Although not directly related to running, its an important part of the taper. Consider looking at areas of your life that may have become neglected during training. Some ideas include spending time with friends or family, learn some new recipes (especially during the final stage when carbo loading), catch up on work, listen to music, read a book: basically any activity that is not too physical.

Remember that training hard during the taper means you will not be able to run hard on race day. Think of the taper period as running to simply keep your legs moving.

Nutritional Aspect of the Taper

The main problem in regards to nutrition during the tapering period is that many runners make the mistake of not cutting down on food intake, even though you have cut a significant amount of distance off your training schedule. However, this does not mean you need to diet as you need plenty of carbohydrates for the distance still existent in your training schedule. In addition, plenty of protein is needed for your muscles to recover from the effects of a high distance training schedule. Avoid foods high in saturated fats as this will lead to weight gain.

Apart from being mindful of eating excessive carbs or unhealthy foods, taper nutrition should be similar to training nutrition. By no means should you be following a low carb diet.  It doesn’t not matter if you put on a bit of weight during the tapering period as you will likely burn off the excess weight on marathon day alone.

Common Training Mistakes in the Taper

1. Not Tapering

After reading this far through this article, you will most likely avoid this mistake as you will see the need to taper in your training. Not tapering serves no additional benefit except risking your final result. Think about the months of hard work and distances ran and ask yourself if the time and effort spent is worth sacrificing.

2. Not Tapering Enough

Some runners are aware of the benefits of tapering but still overestimate their abilities by not tapering enough. Whether this is intentionally or unintentionally depends on the runner. If you are attempting for first, second or even third marathon, you will not understand your body as much as someone that has completed say 5 or more marathons. Therefore, its best to stick to generic advice regarding the amount of distance you should cut from your training schedule.

3. Cross Training

Cross training is a legitimate form of additional training in a marathon training schedule but should be avoided in the tapering period. Some runners compensate the decrease in distance ran by increasing the amount of cross training they do. Avoid this mistake as the entire purpose of the tapering period is to rest your body before race day.

4. Increasing Speed

If you perform speed work in your normal training schedule, then you should consider doing some in your tapering period, however do so at a decreased amount and avoid doing any in your final week of tapering. Some runners increase their speed as the decrease in distance does not leave them feeling exerted or tired at the completion of their runs. However, be aware that the purpose of the taper is to give your body a rest, not wear it down more and leaving you more susceptible to injury.

5. Decreasing Speed

While decreasing speed is recommended in the final week of the tapering period, try to keep your normal running pace in the other two weeks. Decreasing your running speed too much may leave your body too rested before the marathon day, however comparing to the alternative, it is better to arrive at the starting line feeling over rested than under rested. Stick to your normal training speed and try not to run faster than race pace.

6. Neglecting Sleep

Sleeping is often underestimated, especially in the final week of the tapering period. If you don’t already, try to get your sleep pattern in order before race day to ensure you are sufficiently rested and can go to sleep and wake up at reasonable times on the day before and on the day of the marathon.

7. Drinking

By drinking, I am not referring to alcohol consumption (although reducing this will likely be beneficial). Instead I am referring to fluid intake. This is especially important during the final week of the taper and more important as race day grows closer. As a general rule, as soon as you start carbo loading, begin increasing your fluid intake. This does not mean drinking water like crazy, instead having a steady fluid intake and being mindful about dehydration.

8. Letting Your Mind Win

The psychological battle during the taper should not be underestimated. Have a plan in place and avoid starting to make compromises with aspects of your training. For example, many runners start tapering 3 weeks from the marathon, feel like they have all the energy in the world and try to increase their fitness for the marathon by adding another week of training. Find some other activity to replace running and make an effort to stick to your tapering plan.

9. Getting Injured

The truth is that most injuries can be prevented. I would suggest that most injuries incurred during the taper period would be a result of two factors: running to much distance or not listening to your body. Keep in mind that the tapering period serves no benefit for increasing fitness for the marathon day; the fitness was acquired in the pervious months of training. If you feel tired or sluggish listen to your body, not your training schedule and skip a workout or two. Don’t take this advice in reverse though, if you feel great do not increase the speed or distance of your runs.

10. Not Being Aware of the Benefits

By understanding the benefits of tapering and the physical advantage that it provides, you will be more likely to follow the advice in this guide and less likely to make any of the above mistakes.

Conquering Tapering Fears

“I will loose too much fitness before race day”

Yes, you will loose some fitness before race day. However, you will decrease accumulated fatigue, increase glycogen stores and increase your muscle power in the process. The final result will be a faster time on race day, even though a slight amount of fitness may have been lost. Additionally, you will likely regain this fitness by completing the actual marathon.

“What if I do not taper enough and feel tired and sluggish on race day”

By following the information in this guide, you will be pretty much guaranteed to avoid this situation. However, at the same time you should listen to your body. If you feel tired or sluggish running, consider skipping a workout and taking a rest day. Also be aware that your body may be adapting to the change from a high distance running schedule to a relatively easy training schedule.

“I will get too bored with so much spare time on my hands and likely resume running long distances”

Firstly, be aware of the reasons why to taper. In doing this you will likely take the taper more serious than otherwise. Secondly, you need to find something to occupy your time in which you would otherwise be running. Some suggestions have already been mentioned above. Its as simple as finding an area of your life that may have been neglected during the months spent training for the marathon.

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