The Art Of The Marathon Taper

Photo: John Segesta

Tapering isn’t as simple as dialing back your weekly mileage and the intensity of your workouts. 

Most newcomers to the marathon reckon that the toughest part of their preparation is, well, the tough elements of training: long runs, lifetime highs in terms of mileage and long tempo runs. But veterans will typically tell you that the high-end running, while obviously a formidable challenge, isn’t the most difficult aspect of getting ready for race day. That honor is reserved for running less than most would have it, a state of affairs characterizing that agonizing two to three weeks before game day and given an epithet of its own: the taper.

Tapering is Necessary

The reason for tapering before a goal competition isn’t mysterious – it’s to allow you to be as rested as possible so you can maximize your potential. Clearly, the need to taper from your peak mileage is at odds with doing too little for long enough to cost you aerobic fitness. Therefore, most formal schedules have you cutting back mileage for about three weeks before the marathon. Pete Pfitzinger, co-author of “Advanced Marathoning” and a two-time Olympic marathoner as well as an exercise physiologist, believes that you should run 80% of your normal training volume three weeks out from the race, 60% two weeks out, and one-third the week before. On its Web site, Hanson’s Running, which has overseen one of America’s most successful elite marathon groups over the past decade-plus, includingOlympians Brian Sell and Desiree Davila, advises nothing more drastic than a one-week cutback, even for its advanced programs. I fall somewhere in between; it’s far from a settled issue.

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