What you Should Know About Tapering for a Marathon

You’ve put in the miles, workouts and scheduled your social life around your weekend long run. With just a few weeks left before your race, you only have the taper left to go. Tapering for a marathon (or any race) is the period of reduced intensity and miles leading up to race day. In theory, this is supposed to help you race faster.

But does it?

I struggle during the tapering phase of my training. After months of high intensity, I feel off, running only a fraction of what I’m used to. It feels like all that hard work is being wasted in these final weeks of lower intensity. In reality, the taper is actually one of the most important parts of the training cycle. Here’s why.

The Benefits of Tapering

It’s necessary to rest your legs for race day. All the stress and fatigue placed on your body and muscles during your training intensity are reduced during the taper, giving you fresher legs. The journal of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise published a review of 50 studies awhile back that found,

levels of muscle glycogen, enzymes, antioxidants, and hormones–all depleted by high mileage–return to optimal ranges during a taper. The muscle damage that occurs during sustained training is also repaired.

This is great news because the physiological benefits you’ve gained during training don’t go away (assuming you stick to an appropriately intense tapering plan). Anytime you run, you’re placing stress on all aspects of your body. You do this, knowingly, and now you need to be smart about rest to achieve whatever goals you’ve set for yourself.

How to Taper for a Marathon

There are many philosophies on this, and varies depending on the distance. When tapering for a marathon, most training plans suggest beginning the taper three weeks out from the race and reduce your mileage by 80%, 60% and 40% of your peak (respectively) in those final three weeks. While you want to reduce total miles, try not to eliminate your workouts. You can still gain speed in those weeks.

Another element of the taper that some people don’t consider is what you eat. Since you’re used to eating a lot, it’s ok to lay off that extra bowl of cereal before bed. Believe it or not, you may gain a few unwanted pounds if you don’t taper what you eat. Eat smart, stay hydrated and keep healthy.

Resist the Urge to Run Fast

A common mistake you might be tempted to make is running faster than you normally would on regular runs. You should be feeling a little more pep in your rested legs those final weeks. Now isn’t the time to set a new 5k PR during a training run. Except for your workout, keep everything easy. Relax, and remember your hard work will pay off if you leave that extra energy in your legs for race day.

Keep your Routine

Another important thing to know about tapering is to stick to your normal routine as much as possible. If you’re used to running 6 days a week, stick close to that, but drop your daily distance. If you run in the morning, keep doing that. I recently had to switch to running in the afternoon for about a week and it totally threw me off. Your body craves consistency, so give it to it.

What tips do you have when tapering for a marathon? Do you find it hard not to run faster than normal?

Nathan Freeburg
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Nathan Freeburg

Editor in Chief at Minneapolis Running
Nathan started running when he was 14. 20+ years later, he's still going. When he's not running, he enjoys exploring the city with his son, finding new restaurants with his wife, traveling, or backpacking. He loves dark beer, dark chocolate and dark coffee.

Nathan currently lives in Portland, but works in Minneapolis and runs wherever he is. Favorite Minnesota running route is anything that takes him along the Mississippi River.
Race Results.

Nathan's day job is as a senior consultant with Leadership Vision Consulting in Downtown Minneapolis.
Nathan Freeburg
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