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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Tapering Is Relative

While it’s true that an elite runner’s taper might entail twice the amount of running that a novice marathoner logs at the height of her training, it’s also the case that runners who haven’t built up to especially high mileage totals need not be as concerned with obeying percentile dicta such as that proffered by Pfitzinger. If you top out at an average of 40 or 50 miles a week, for example, your mileage the last three weeks before your marathon might be 40, 30 and 25, whereas if you’re a 100-mile-a-week type, you might be looking at 80, 60 and 40 – a much sharper percentile reduction even if the absolute totals are far higher.

Tapering is a Mind Game

I’d prefer a different word than “game” here, but this is a family Internet, so I’ll just trust that you get the idea.

While easing off the throttle in the final days and weeks before your marathon might seem like an appealing prospect on the surface – with the hay in the barn, you’ve earned the privilege of being a relative layabout – many people find cutting back mileage and intensity to be as much of a challenge as the long runs and sustained tempos that form the heart of most runners’ peak training. Perhaps the chief reason for this is the Catch-22 of growing increasingly nervous about the race itself at a time when your primary means of blowing off stress – exercise – is, by obligation, sharply limited. Some runners feel that they are gaining unneeded weight, and although this is usually mental, you actually should go into the marathon a few pounds heavier than you’re accustomed to being, especially if you’re a higher-mileage type who spends much of a training cycle in a state of partial or pronounced glycogen depletion. Glycogen storage requires significant water retention, so if you’re a few pounds up, you very likely have achieved a state of proper hydration, not packed on unwanted body mass.

It’s helpful to have something to occupy your mind while tapering especially in the last four or five days. I wouldn’t recommend diving headfirst into an all-consuming work project, but reading a book, renting some DVDs you’ve been meaning to watch for a while, or taking the kids to the museum or aquarium are just a few of the things that can help take your focus off the race – there will be plenty of opportunity for that at the right time. Personally I find it useful to avoid surfing running sites in the last few days unless there’s something specific I really need to know.

Tapering Is Comprehensive

It’s probably intuitive to you that resting before a race involves cutting back on both aspects of training load: mileage and intensity. One issue marathoners often encounter is the phenomenon I call “frisky legs.” A couple of weeks into a more prolonged taper but with a week or so remaining before the marathon, you are likely to be feeling the beneficial physical effects of taking it easier, and as a result of feeling fresher than you have in months, you may be seduced into running faster on your daily runs, and especially in your final few programmed workouts, than you should. Like much in life, what feels great at the time may come at a cost. I speak from experience: In 2002 I was getting ready for the Vermont City Marathon and had a solid shot at a PR based on a number of key sessions in the month or two beforehand. Four days before the race, I set out to run a four-miler at goal marathon pace. Instead, I felt so fantastic that I pulled out most of the stops in the last two miles and in the last 5K of the workout I came perilously close to my PR at the time. That was almost surely one reason I fell well short of expectations in the marathon.

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In any case, be sure to not only keep your mileage totals modest but take special care to keep your easy runs extremely easy. If this means hooking up with someone much slower than you for runs in the last two or three weeks, or running on a treadmill with the belt speed set at a very modest pace, by all means go for it. It’s worth the added reach.

Guidelines

Most, if not all, of the foregoing is probably no mystery, so it’s time for some specific pointers. The following is a schedule I would prescribe for someone with a peak sustained (over at least four weeks) average training load of 70 miles (~110 kilometers) per week. Explanations of the workouts and minutiae follow the suggested schedule.

Week

Mon

Tue

Wed

Thu

Fri

Sat

Sun

Mileage

3

7

9

12 w/ last 4 @ LT pace

8

9

Off

15 w/ last 2 @ 10K race effort

60

2

7

12 w/ last 8-10 @ goal MP

4

6

9 incl. 1.5M @ MP; 400 jog; 2 x 800@ 3K race pace w/  3:00 jog; 1.5M @ goal MP

Off

10

48

1

8

4

8 w/ last 3 @ goal MP

5

Off

3

Marathon

28 (pre-race)

Note the near-absence of VO2 Max-style workouts (those involving reps at of faster than 5K race pace) and the emphasis on marathon-pace work. It may seem off to take a day off two days before the race while logging a short run the day before, but I’m not alone in finding that this helps stave off staleness than can occur in the direct wake of a rest day. Also, in the “dress rehearsal” four days out from the marathon, you should wear the same shoes and attire you plan to wear in the race itself, just to make sure all of your gear is a go.

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Obviously, this schedule can be adjusted for any peak mileage level, and keep in mind that it’s the principles, not following the schedule to the letter, that are of paramount importance.

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