The marathon taper is a CRITICAL component of any marathon training program in order to absorb your training and get to the start line fresh. But tapering for a marathon can be tricky. You can taper too much or too little and end up feeling flat on race day. The marathon taper also messes with your mind. Runners start to panic, worried they are losing their fitness. They can start feeling some aches and pains, and even get sick.
You’re running less so how is that possible? What the heck is going on?
We call this marathon “taper tantrums” and they aren’t unlike the toddler temper tantrums we’re used to as mother runners: just like your child, your body is cranky because it is tired, and, well, hungry in a way (aka depleted). It needs rest and fuel (just like when your kids are melting down because they need a nap or a PB&J.)
So, if the marathon taper can make you feel worse, why do it?
So, why do you taper?
The marathon taper plays an important role in your marathon training. The marathon taper, the reduction of miles to allow the muscles to repair, glycogen supplies to return to normal, is key for absorbing your training and getting those PRs on race day.
Do not confuse tapering with resting. Tapering does include more rest but if all you do is rest for the weeks ahead of your marathon, you’ll lose key biological adaptations you gained from your training.
The main 3 objectives of marathon tapering are to:
- Optimize the tension of your muscles so you feel a “spring” in your step when you run
- Minimize stress on your body and mind
- Increase muscle recovery and decrease muscle fatigue
As Laura Norris, The Mother Runners co-coach who is RRCA- and VDOT-certified explains, it relates back to supercompensation theory:
“Supercompensation theory suggests appropriate recovery from a deliberately overloaded training causes fitness to bounce back to a higher level than before. In marathon training, you progressively overload your training with long runs and big marathon workouts, for weeks and weeks.
“This causes a temporary rise in fatigue that masks performance, which is why some workouts may feel so hard. Then, when you taper, you let your body recover – so that by race day, your fitness is higher than it was before.”
In fact, fitness is about 2 percent higher, Laura notes.
What happens to your body when you taper?
People feel taper tantrums because when you start tapering, your body is depleted. So, cutting back on mileage helps your body (muscles, tendons, glycogen levels, hormones, enzymes, immune system) recover and build itself back up. However, during this process, you may experience some discomforts. Here is why:
You have aches and pains.
As your tissues repair, some muscle twitches and cramps can occur explaining some of the pains you feel. Also, since you’re so focused on how you’ll feel on race day, you’re more likely to notice these discomforts.
During training, your body was in overdrive, producing energizing endorphins and adrenaline. Now that you’re not running as hard, your body isn’t producing these so you feel more tired. But guess what? If you feel lethargic several days ahead of the race, that’s a good sign the taper is working. By race day, you should feel a boost in energy. If you don’t feel extra tired, don’t worry. The taper is still working.
You get sick.
Taper time follows peak week where your immune system is suppressed by the adrenaline required to keep you moving. Now your immune system is kicked into overdrive and it’s common to get sick. Don’t stress. Just keep focusing on resting and recovering.
“One common thing I see with tapering runners is that when those taper tantrums or feeling of fatigue sets in, they assume they need a break – so stop training,” shares Thomas Watson, head coach and founder of Marathon Handbook. “That’s a mistake. It’s easy to mistake some of the sluggish feelings of tapering for the onset of an illness. Obviously, if you have clear signs of illness you should take a break – but if your symptoms are just energy level swings and body aches, stick to your training plan – now more than ever!”
Remember, the taper is your friend and it’s here to help your body get ready to crush it on race day.
When should you start tapering for a marathon?
The marathon taper typically starts 2 to 3 weeks out from your marathon race day. It starts the day after your longest run which usually caps at 20+ miles. Runners who run less mileage, 40 miles or less, and runners who don’t feel fatigued from the training need less time to taper (two weeks). Runners running higher mileage of 40 miles or more have a longer taper time of about 3 weeks.
How do you taper for a marathon?
The recipe for a successful marathon taper includes two main ingredients:
- a cutback in total mileage ranging from 10 to 40 percent depending on how much total mileage you were doing or your level of fatigue, according to well-known coach Greg McMillan;
- PLUS a little quality (aka speed) work to keep the legs bouncy.
How much should you cut your mileage in a marathon taper?
During the taper, you want to reduce your volume just enough to facilitate recovery and adaptation but not so much that you feel sluggish. Typically, for a marathon that looks like
- 85% of total mileage three weeks out from race day,
- 60-65% of total volume two weeks out from race day,
- and 50% the week of (not counting the race)
Again, bear in mind this reduction can differ depending on the runner.
Should you still do a long run during a marathon taper?
Yes, you still do a long run when tapering for the marathon. You just don’t run as long. Whenever you do start cutting back, you should look to reduce your long run into the low double digits like 10 to 14 miles.
At this point, any long run you do will not improve your endurance, so no need to run more than that. The point of these runs is to maintain fitness, routine, and muscle tension to have spring in your step.
“Doing a long run is still critical during the marathon taper to keep your body in routine and help keep the endurance foundation sharp. You can over taper too and get flat if you drop the long runs too much and too soon,” explains Bobby Holcombe, head coach and founder of Knoxville Endurance.
Should you still do speedwork when tapering for a marathon?
Yes! You should still do speedwork such as intervals when tapering for a marathon. The reason is to maintain muscle tension so that your legs don’t feel flat on race day. Every marathon plan is different, but many maintain a tempo run, strides, and marathon pace mile repeats leading up to race day.
These speed sessions will have the same intensity but will be shorter. For example, if you typically do a 30-minute tempo, this tempo run may be 20 minutes. If you typically do 10 reps for a speed interval, the duration may only be 6 to 8.
Many marathon training plans include an extra day of rest during the marathon taper.
Can you taper too much for a marathon?
Yes. If your marathon taper involves lounging on the couch every day leading up to your race, then you will likely feel sluggish and not perform well. It’s important to maintain a shrunken down version of your running routine during your marathon taper time.
The reason you don’t want to rest too much is because of muscle tension. As running coach great and researcher Steve Magness explains:
“In simplistic terms, we want to manipulate (muscle tension) to give us the optimal ‘spring’ in our legs on race day. If you’ve ever rested a lot before a race and then found your legs feeling completely ‘flat’ on race day – that’s most likely a case of extremely low tension from backing off too much in training.”
In order to obtain optimal muscle tension, you want to gradually decrease volume but not intensity leading up to a race.
“Be careful of decreasing volume excessively as this can interfere with the ‘rhythm’ of training and the cycle that your body is used to. Our bodies don’t like things that represent a massive change to the norm, even if that change is going from a lot of exercise to a lot of rest. Many athletes find that if they rest excessively, they feel a distinct lack of energy come race day and it feels as though they’ve forgotten how to put in a hard effort,” warns Magness in The Science of Running.
What should you eat during your marathon taper?
While you’re tapering for a marathon, your body is replenishing nutrients stores depleted during the training cycle. These tips from registered sports dietician Dana Eshelman will help you ensure your body has the fuel you need on race day:
Eat when you are hungry.
Eat complex carbs.
Eat lean protein.
Do not forget hydration!! Hydration is important for transporting all the nutrients you are taking into your working muscles as well as to avoid GI distress during competition. Aim for urine that is a light lemonade color and to use the restroom every 2-3 hours. You may also consider electrolyte drinks, especially if you are racing in a hot, humid climate.
Load the carbs early.
Instead of carbohydrate loading just the evening before, try planning your lunch the day before your race to be your bigger meal and have a normal to light dinner. This will allow your food to be digested so you feel light and ready to go on the starting line! Also, about three days ahead of the race, start avoiding anything with fiber including vegetables. Gradually start increasing your carbohydrate intake by about 25 percent each day.
13 Marathon Taper Tips for Success
Rest. But not too much.
Stay active. Stick to a reduced running routine. Do workouts that give you confidence. And, trust the taper. Embrace the extra rest knowing it is helping you recover so that you’re strong on race day.
Sleep is when your body repairs the cellular breakdown that occurs in training.
Expect to feel not great.
Your workouts may feel harder than they should. Your mind is expecting for everything to feel easy at this point, so it will only be ready for low exertion. It’s also working hard at recovery. Trust your fitness and don’t let these workouts mess with your confidence.
Get a massage.
A massage a few days ahead of the race will please any unhappy muscles and lessen your chance of cramping.
Do gentle stretching daily.
Take a few minutes every day to loosen your muscles and prep them for going the distances with some light stretching and foam rolling. Also, avoid lifting weights.
Take Epsom salt baths.
Put a couple of cups of Epsom salts in the bath and soak for 20 minutes. This helps relax and rejuvenate muscles by decreasing inflammation.
Drink lots of water and electrolytes.
Now is the time to start focusing on your hydration so you’re ready to push through that wall.
Avoid fibrous foods and stock up on carbs.
About three days ahead of the race, start avoiding anything with fiber including vegetables. Gradually start increasing your carbohydrate intake about 25 percent each day.
Take your vitamins.
Some people like to take some extra vitamin C and D ahead of the race. I drink this echinacea and elderberry tea to give me an immunity boost.
Visualize yourself nailing the race.
Go through race day in your head from the moment you get up to getting to the start line, racing, finishing, and then celebrating. Imagine how you will feel (hint: you feel great!) and work through any race day logistics and kinks (e.g. do you have the proper clothing or nutrition with you or how will you get back to your hotel).
Related: How to have a healthy marriage while training for a marathon
Read some motivational books.
Review your training.
Go through your training logs or Strava, or whatever you use, and review all the hard work you’ve put in for this day. Think of the times you had to arrange for babysitters or get up extra early. You’re ready. Don’t let the taper make you doubt your readiness.
Related: Genius tricks to stay motivated while running
This is your TIME TO SHINE but also a celebration of months of hard work, and mental and physical toughness.
Be sure to check out these 16 things to do before you start training for a marathon.
PS-I’d love to help you reach your running goals whether it be to run your first 5k or run competitively! Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with questions or check out my Coaching Services page!