The benefits of a pre-race taper before a marathon are scientifically proven facts. The only thing left for debate is how to specifically adjust that taper period to your individual needs.
Tapering off your training by cutting back volume but maintaining intensity in the weeks before a major race has been found in some studies to lead to as much as a three percent increase in performance. Tapering lets microcellular muscle damage repair and glycogen stores replenish, says Pete Pfitzinger, a two-time Olympic marathoner for the U.S. and co-author of Advanced Marathoning. Tapering can also lead to increases in red blood cell count and VO2 max—not to mention psychological improvements that leave you feeling sharp and ready to race.
“Studies have shown that a well-planned taper leads to improved running economy and increases in muscle strength and power,” Pfitzinger says.
Great. So how can you make sure you’re getting all those benefits for your marathon?
The standard marathon taper plan starts three weeks before your race, with shorter tapers for shorter races. Typically, Pfitzinger recommends cutting training volume by about 60 percent over those three weeks, starting with about 20 percent in the first week and increasing to a 60 percent reduction in the last week. Do this by shortening your longer runs, decreasing the length of easy runs and taking more rest days. Your longest long run, often around 20 to 22 miles (though it depends on the athlete), is typically done a month before the race. A week before your marathon, your long run is just 10 to 12 miles. The key during this taper period is to maintain the level of intensity with short VO2 max efforts and tempo runs, resting more on the intervals, in order to “maintain race fitness,” Pfitzinger says. Many athletes will even do a shorter race, like a half marathon or 10K, a few weeks before their A-race marathon.
While that’s the standard taper plan—and a good place to start—you’ll want to adjust it based on what works for you.
Some athletes don’t feel good with a big reduction in volume and some athletes respond well to large cutbacks, according to Juli Benson, an Olympian and coach for college and professional runners.
The only way to figure out what’s going to get you to that starting line feeling the freshest and hungriest is by testing different approaches at races throughout your season or throughout the years. Think about what you did leading into your best races, and if there was a pattern.
There are generally three tapering schools of thought: to cut volume sharply and focus on high-intensity efforts, to cut volume moderately and do more medium-intensity race-specific efforts, or to cut volume less and maintain routine—which should still include a variety of speed efforts. You might find you race best in any one of those programs or somewhere in between.
Regardless, two of the most common mistakes in a marathon taper are going too easy or too hard. Often, Pfitzinger says, people focus on the rest part of tapering, but don’t do enough efforts at race pace or slightly faster. That can leave you feeling sluggish. Other runners are overly worried about losing fitness and so don’t taper as much as they should. Benson also sees people who are feeling great from the taper and end up running too hard as a result. Or they try to throw in anaerobic efforts for the first time ever—which, if you haven’t done efforts that hard in the months before your race, could make you susceptible to injury.
It can be hard to balance all the physical demands before a race, but it’s just as hard to balance the psychological aspects. Runners typically feel anxious and fidgety with all the extra energy and time.
“You invested all this time and energy, and now you have to play the waiting game,” Benson says. That’s why she often has her athletes sign up for online classes or read a book—anything that has nothing to do with running. You can also use that time to make sure you have all your nutrition and logistics nailed down.
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