How to Taper for a Marathon
You’ve made it through weeks of grueling marathon training, and it’s finally time to rest with a taper period. A marathon taper period is a time of structured recovery, a decrease in training volume and an emphasis on rest, nutrition and mental preparation so you can toe the starting line feeling like a running rock star.
The hard work is over, right? Actually, many runners consider the marathon taper to be one of the most difficult parts of a marathon training plan. Although the higher-intensity sessions and long runs are in the rearview mirror, an athlete’s brain and body experience a different kind of stress as you shift attention away from training and set sights on your goal race.
Rattling around in your head are thoughts like “am I prepared enough?” or, “how do I properly carb load?” and, “why am I so anxious?” As the big day approaches, your main focus should be on rest, nutrition and mental preparation. Read on to learn how to taper for a marathon.
Get plenty of rest
The main purpose of a taper leading up to a race is to allow your body to recover from the chronic stress of training. Resting will decrease general inflammation and allow your muscles, tendons and joints to heal from all the tough workouts so they can be at full strength for race day. You should obviously be running less… but exactly how much should you dial it back?
Structuring your training load during a taper will look different for each runner. Some start their taper three weeks before the marathon, while others choose a two-week block of time. Some athletes sprinkle marathon pace runs into the taper, while others run all their miles at an easy pace. No matter which strategy you go with, here are some general guidelines you should follow:
- Reduce your total weekly volume. During the first week of your taper, you should cut back your weekly mileage by roughly 25 percent. You’ll likely have just completed your “peak week” of training, your highest volume week with your longest run of the cycle, prior to beginning your taper period. As you slide into the taper, don’t drop your mileage abruptly, but rather ease into the last few weeks of rest and recovery. For example, if your highest week of training was 60 miles, run 45 miles during the first part of the taper. If you are doing a three-week taper, the second week should see a cutback of about 50 percent, or, in this case, a 30-mile week.
- Keep your runs easy. This is especially difficult, as many runners feel that by doing so they are losing fitness. This couldn’t be further from the truth! It is physiologically impossible to make any fitness gains during the short window leading up to your goal event, and the “hay is in the barn,” so to speak. You will not get any fitter or faster by running hard two to three weeks out from the race. Even worse, you could hinder your body’s ability to recover and arrive at the start line feeling your best. You can sprinkle in some pick-ups or a short Fartlek run to loosen up your legs, but avoid anything that feels strenuous. You can even use your shorter runs to practice running at your goal race pace. This should feel somewhat easy, since your goal race pace for 13.1 or 26.2 miles should feel like a walk in the park for three to five miles.
- Get lots of sleep. Since the primary goal of the taper period is to allow your body to recover and reset, placing an emphasis on sleep quality is just as important as dialing back your total weekly volume. If you are not doing so already, start to embrace good sleep habits by giving yourself time to wind down through reading or journaling, rather than watching television, and go to sleep around the same time every night. Aim to get a total of seven to nine hours of restful, restorative sleep.
Pro tip: Make the most of your Garmin watch by tracking your REM sleep.
Focus on your nutrition
Just as you dialed in your nutrition during your hard weeks of training, keep fueling your body during the taper. Some runners make the mistake of eating less because they’re training less, but you should give your body the nutrients it needs to recover and rebuild. Not only that, but you should forecast what you’ll need for the race. Dialing in your nutrition during your taper will give you an extra advantage on race day!
- Don’t forget the protein. Carbs are all the rage prior to a big race, but two weeks out is too soon to start carb-loading. During the first part of your taper, you should ensure you are getting an adequate amount of protein to help your body heal from the chronic stress of training and the depletion caused by your last, high-volume training week. Keep an emphasis on well-balanced meals to give your body everything it needs to perform.
- Leave enough time to carb-load. Carb-loading is the legend and lore of every endurance event. Glycogen, the carbs you store in your muscles and liver, is your body’s prime fuel while running. By loading up on carbs, you’re boosting your body’s glycogen stores so you have extra fuel available during the race. But gone are the days of pre-race pasta binges. Shoveling in extra carbs the night before a race won’t boost your glycogen stores in time, and it can also trigger gastrointestinal distress that can hinder performance. Rather than cramming pasta into your mouth twelve hours before the race, start consuming 8-10 grams per kilogram of bodyweight of carbohydrates during race week, specifically the three to six days prior to the event. This will allow the glycogen to accumulate, and can be as easy as selecting recipes that are carbohydrate heavy or packing carbohydrate rich snacks to consume throughout the day.
- Stay hydrated. You may be cutting back on your water consumption as you start running less without even realizing it, as you might not be as thirsty as you typically are. Remember to keep your water bottle close at hand, and ensure you are simultaneously consuming electrolytes.
Now is also a good time to cut back on alcohol consumption, as it will counteractyour hydration strategy and affect your sleep quality. Even if you find yourself sweating less, try to drink just as much as you would have before tapering.
Tame your brain
While your body will feel rested, recovered and, dare we say, tingling with anticipation for your race, your brain is another matter entirely. As you reduce your physical workload, feelings of stress, anxiousness and even boredom will start to creep in.
You may start to overanalyze every aspect of your training, overthink your race goals and wonder if you’re ready to race at all. This can undermine even the best of physical preparation. However, all hope is not lost! There are many ways to tame the brain during this time of nervousness and anxious anticipation.
- Focus on your race day strategy. This will eliminate some of the logistical guesswork and help you feel more confident in your ability to successfully reach your goal. Creating a game plan for the day of the event will bring a sense of calm, as the non-race specific details can easily be worked out ahead of time.nStart by reverse-engineering what race morning looks like. What time do you need to be in the corral? How long do you need to warm up? How long will it take you to get to the start line, and how are you going to get there? Simply knowing when to set your alarm and having a clear course of action after it goes off will allow you to focus more on running the race itself, and less on the small details involved in participating.
- Visualize success. Over the course of the taper, many athletes engage in visualization exercises. While the body cannot become any fitter or faster during the taper, the brain is another matter. You can realize significant performance benefits by “practicing” the race in your head. Is there a big climb along the course? Close your eyes and envision yourself tackling the hill successfully. Is there a lull in crowd support? Choose a mantra you will repeat to yourself when the cheering stops. How are you going to feel during the last few miles? Imagine yourself running through the finish line with strength and clean form. It’s also helpful to partner visualization exercises with breathwork, which will expedite and enhance your body’s natural recovery mechanisms.
- Stay occupied. As you run less mileage during the taper, you will find yourself with extra time on your hands. It’s easy to spend this time obsessing over the nuances of your training and the race itself, which increases stress levels and can hinder your recovery. Instead of filling this time with running-related activities, try to divert your energy and attention elsewhere. There might be a big project you haven’t had time to tackle during training, friends you haven’t seen since you started your weekend long runs or a hobby you enjoy that has taken a backseat to your running. The taper period is the perfect time to become proactively non-compulsive about running and training, and enjoy other things life has to offer!
By implementing these strategies into your taper routine, not only will you be rested and recovered from training, you’ll have the mental fortitude to tackle whatever may happen on race day.