Finishing strong: How to taper effectively for your marathon

Photo: Pixabay
Photo: Pixabay

ANN ARBOR – For most marathon runners, beginners and experienced, this is the time for "tapering." Tapering means you are "'reducing" the amount of your weekly mileage during the next several weeks.

When I trained for my first marathon in 1992, I had never heard of "tapering." My only focus was to get through the training. I had no set goals other than the fact that I wanted to finish. I gave no thought to what I should do after my longest run -- at 20 miles. I knew that I was sore and tired, but there was not a lot of advice on the internet about marathon training. My local running store gave me a few tips and sent me on my way.

Today, the internet hurls masses of information at us -- what to do, what not to do, what you absolutely have to do and what you should do but not do. Confusing? Yes! 

Do I taper for three weeks? Maybe only two weeks? Maybe I don’t need to taper because I am ready to run that marathon now!

I believe less is more, and the less information out there would help you to learn what works and does not work for you. But since we are right here at the time of your taper, what do you do?

The Science of the Taper
First of all, physiological adaptation gains to marathon training take a minimum of six weeks. Therefore, training hard during the final two to three weeks before your marathon is not going to improve your performance. In fact, introducing new speed sessions or attempting shorter speed workouts may hurt your marathon performance.

Several of the studies concluded that the optimal length of taper is from seven days to three weeks, depending on the distance of the race and how hard you've trained. Too short a taper will leave you tired on race day, while tapering for too long will lead to a loss of fitness.

Individualizing the Taper
Everything about training for any distance is, in fact, individualized. One training program can do wonders for one runner and be disastrous for another runner.

The problem with "too much information" is it results in us second-guessing what has been working. We get impatient and distrust the work we have done. During your training, you should have learned how well you recover from longer distances. 

When I did a lot of racing back in the '90s, I found that I needed to take a day off two days prior to the event and always run the day before; even for the marathon, I would run a couple miles the day before. That worked for me and horrified many a runner that I would run the day before an important event, but that is what I learned worked for me.

Through the years, I learned how to taper. Less is so much better for me. I know a lot of runners who have less of a taper. Some runners continue their training up to a few days before the event. What works, works.

Experienced marathoners will tell you the marathon taper schedule is harder than the training itself because when you achieve a level of fitness where you are confident that you can go the distance, the thought of decreasing your training for a taper is scary. You can make a lot of costly mistakes during your taper and ruin the months of training you have accomplished.

As I mentioned above, it takes six weeks to adapt to new training. This is the time to recover and refresh. 

With that said, you can also taper too much and become “detrained,” leaving you feeling flat and sluggish for the actual marathon.

Constructing Your Taper
Reducing your weekly mileage will help keep you fresh for the marathon. For example, if you ran my recommended mileage and peaked at 50 miles a week, your taper for three weeks would be 40 miles, 30 miles and then 10 miles plus the marathon. Or, if you peaked at 40 miles a week, your taper would be 30 miles, 25 miles and 10 miles plus the marathon.

If you peaked at less than 40 miles a week, you may not need to taper at all. I would consider your mileage quite low and recommend you continue with the same mileage.

You should maintain a bit of intensity during those last few weeks, but your hardest workouts should be behind you. Here is a workout you can safely execute two and three weeks prior to the marathon:

  • Start with a 1- to 2- mile warmup – run 2-3 miles at marathon pace followed with 2-3 miles 20 seconds faster than marathon pace, followed by a 1- to 2- mile cool-down.
  • In the last two weeks, capitalize on the opportunity to practice marathon pace. This will work the energy systems you need for race day. 
  • One week out from marathon, at the beginning of the week, go 2-3 miles at marathon pace after 1 mile of slow jogging before, with a 3-minute rest between each mile, and after the mile repeats.
  • Again, this workout will help you solidify race pace, but the 3-minute rest ensures it’s not a hard effort.

Don’t be afraid or alarmed if your weight increases a bit during those final weeks of tapering. Try not to sacrifice your nutrition. Stop looking at the scales and eat appropriately to ensure you are getting the proper nutrition for you major event.

If this is your first marathon, this is your first experiment at running a marathon. Take notes, taper judiciously, get plenty of sleep and eat wisely. Your goal is to finish. Remember that there is no such thing as a “Pace Fairy” - she is the fairy who magically bestows faster legs on you the night before the marathon. Pace yourself accordingly and realistically to how you were able to perform in your training. “Death Marching” (having to eek out those last miles of the marathon) is no fun for anyone. Start that first few miles slow, and if you think you are running slow, run slower

Good Luck and Happy Marathoning.

Kathleen Gina is the founder and director of Run Ann Arbor. She brings her 40 years of experience -- including the Boston Marathon -- to her group runs, which she's been organizing for 20 years. A retired registered nurse, she works with beginner, intermediate and experienced runners.

You can contact her at runannarbor2@gmail.com.

This story is sponsored by Applied Fitness Solutions. AFS provides group fitness classes and personal wellness coaching at their three area locations: Ann Arbor, Rochester Hills, and Plymouth. Learn more about AFS.

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