The hardest part of marathon training is not always the 20 mile long run, nor is it the months of dedicated training. For many runners, the hardest part of marathon training occurs during the final three weeks – the marathon taper.
The marathon taper isn’t some unnecessary design made to drive you crazy; the taper removes some training stress to allow your body to recover from the months of hard training so that you can benefit fully from your training. Without the taper, your body won’t be ready to peak on race day – think of how you don’t feel ready to race the marathon in the middle of training.
You know the benefits of the marathon taper – but oftentimes, the combination of restlessness and race nerves make the taper difficult. These tips will help you not just survive the marathon taper but also thrive in it so that you are ready to race your best on marathon day.
Individualize the Taper
Typically, the mileage reduces by 80-85% three weeks out, 60-65% two weeks out, and 50% or slightly less the week of the race – but use these formulas as guidelines, not strict rules. I coach dozens of runners at the marathon distance, yet no two runners follow the same taper plan. Some have a 3 week gradual taper full of harder workouts, while others have a sharp 2 week taper with a couple tune-up workouts. If your previous tapers have left you feeling flat, adjust based on the guidelines to see if something different will work for you.
Don’t Stop Eating
You won’t be eating as much as you did during the peak weeks of training, but you should not restrict your food intake. Think of food as fuel: you need to fuel your upcoming runs, even if they are shorter, and your upcoming race. Nutritious foods will also aid in recovery.
If you are worried about gaining weight, be realistic about your portions (you don’t need quite as much as you did after your 20 miler!) and save the indulgent treats until after your marathon. Don’t restrict your calories or try to lose weight during this time – focus on giving your body the nutrients and energy it needs to finish off training and prepare for the marathon.
Give Yourself Mini-Goals
A majority of runners thrive on doing things and achieving goals – which is why some runners struggle with taking rest days. Taking a complete rest day may make some runners feel as if they aren’t working toward their goals – but adding in light, non-running activities to facilitate recovery makes the rest easier while still achieving the same purpose.
Just as light activity such as a long walk or yoga will help you with the mental aspect of a rest day, adding in non-running activities geared towards the marathon will help you cope with the taper. Spend the time you would have spent running on foam rolling, visualization, mental preparation, studying the race course, and similar activities. You will still have the feeling of accomplishing something, but be honoring the reduction in training that you need as well.
Keep The Intensity Up with Hard Workouts…
Think of the taper period as a sharpening period: you are both resting up for the race and honing your body’s ability to run a long distance at a certain pace. While you don’t want to err on the side of running too hard in the taper, you also don’t want to spend 2-3 weeks only doing easy running. A long taper of only easy running will produce the taper crazies, decrease your fitness, and dampen your confidence.
The hard workouts during the taper period should be specific to the unique physiological demands of the race. The most beneficial workouts are done at goal pace or ever so slightly faster. For the marathon, this means marathon pace runs and perhaps some shorter tempo runs. The marathon taper is emphatically not the time to run 5K pace repeats if it’s been months since you’ve been to the track.
Marathon pace will feel comfortable by this point in training, but don’t push too hard on those sharpening workouts. The goal is to help you physically and mentally hone in on what race pace feels like – not to try to set a 5K or 10K PR in the middle of training.
… And Slow Down on Easy Runs
You should have already been keeping a majority of your training runs at a light, conversational effort – but now more than ever, you want to avoid accumulating unnecessary fatigue. On all runs other than your hard workouts, run easy enough that you can carry on a conversation. If monitoring pace helps you, aim for 1-2 minutes per mile slower than goal marathon pace. If the pace messes with your mind, cover your watch, run at an effort with minimal aerobic strain, and think about saving your legs for race day.
Taper from Cross-Training as Well
The marathon taper is comprehensive – meaning that you aren’t just tapering from running, you’re taper from training as a whole. In the final 7-10 days before the race, cut back on strength training and cross-training. Don’t take any new fitness classes or start a new cross-training program during this time, either.
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How well do you handle the taper?