The Anatomy of a Perfect Marathon Taper
5 facts about reducing training load and maintaining fitness as your marathon approaches. Plus, a proven 4-week marathon taper plan.
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Fall marathons are looming, and tens of thousands of runners are finally preparing to toe the line to see just what they can do after all these months of waiting. A big piece of success lies in the final stages of preparation where you execute the marathon taper, a stage of training when you back off and try to walk the tightrope between going into the race well-rested, but not so rested that you go stale.
Going stale occasionally happens, but most runners err in the opposite direction by not trusting the marathon taper process, trying to do too much when they should be resting. It’s a mistake that can make the difference between a PR and a disappointment.
Luckily, there are a few basic principles you can remember when the fears we all face about being lazy or missing training tempt you to do too much.
5 Facts About the Marathon Taper
1. Tapering works.
A 2007 study led by Laurent Bosquet, then at the University of Montreal, Canada, found that a taper can speed you up by more than 5.6 percent. That’s the difference between a 3:20 marathon and a 3:31 marathon. Note, however, that 5.6 percent benefit is an extreme case. You shouldn’t expect to get that much, but trust that proper tapering will result in a better time.
2. In the final days, extra training won’t help.
The hay is in the barn and your goal is to rest, while not letting your “training” hay go moldy. It’s too late to try to make up for lost training earlier in your training cycle, and if you try to do that, all you can do is to blow your taper…and with it, your race.
3. The ideal taper comes from reducing volume, but not intensity.
You need to do some speedwork during the taper in order to keep all your energy and neuromuscular systems sharp. This means a mix of everything from strides to aerobic work. What you don’t need is to push any of these to the max.
4. It works best by cutting down progressively, not all at once.
Bosquet’s paper found that the ideal taper eventually cut down total volume by 40-60 percent by the final week, including speed workouts. In the ideal taper, you run as many days a week as you normally do (maybe with one or two extra, judiciously timed, rest days), but reduce volume in everything from workouts to long runs, as well as your weekly total mileage.
5. Don’t sweat it if you make minor errors.
“Let’s say you’re scheduled to go six miles at 7:00 pace,” says Thom Hunt, a former American 10K red-holder who now coaches at Cuyamaca College in San Diego. “If you run 6½ at 6:45, you’re not going to blow the whole thing.” Hunt was talking specifically about 5K/10K tapers but the same applies to the marathon. In fact, it probably doesn’t matter all that much if you get lost on what’s supposed to be an 8-mile run ten days before the race and accidentally wind up running, say, 11 miles. The stress of fretting about the error will probably cost you more than the error itself.
The Four-Week Marathon Taper
You won’t find much talk in the literature about tapers longer than 2-3 weeks. That’s largely, Bosquet says, because it’s hard to get enough runners to consent to tapers longer than 14 days to conduct a meaningful study.
But a 1996 French study of swimmers found benefits from a 28-day taper, something I find very interesting because I’ve long prescribed a four-week marathon taper.
Not that it’s what most people conventionally think of as a taper, because it begins, four weeks out, with an extremely tough workout. It then returns to normal baseline in volume with reduced intensity for one week, followed by a 21-day progressive taper. If you prefer, you could think of it as a final push, followed by a taper.
Here’s how the four-week marathon taper works:
• 28-29 Days Before the Race
On Saturday, even if the race is on Sunday, because there’s another workout next Tuesday, and you need at least three days to recover, do a long run of 20–22 miles, finishing with 13–18 miles at marathon pace. That’s a wide range, I realize; being more specific depends on your experience. For a seasoned marathoner doing at least 70 miles per week on average over the past few months, hold the marathon pace part for 16–18 miles. For lower-mileage runners and new marathoners, drop down to 13. This is not only a major workout, but a critical test of your marathon goal. If you can’t hit your target pace, it probably needs to be adjusted.
• 27-21 Days Before the Race
Tuesday: Do a normal speedwork session, IF you’re recovered from the long/fast run 3 days ago. If sore or fatigued, reduce intensity and or volume.
Friday: Do a tempo run. Normal volume.
Sunday: Go long, reducing intensity to easy. Do 20-22 miles max. The marathon is now 20-21 days away.
Total weekly volume: Normal.
• 20-14 Days Before the Race
Tuesday: Normal speed workout.
Friday: Tempo. Slightly reduced volume (maybe by 10-15 percent).
Sunday: 16 miles, ending with 50-60 percent as many marathon-pace miles as two weeks ago. This should not be super-hard.
Total weekly volume: 10 percent below normal.
• 13-7 Days Before the Race
Tuesday: Normal workout adjusted to about 2/3 of total volume.
Friday: Tempo. Reduced to about half of normal volume.
Sunday: 10-12 easy.
Total weekly volume: At least 20 percent below normal.
• Final week (assuming Sunday race)
Tuesday: 6-8 x 600m @ tempo pace (no faster than 12K pace) with 20-25 sec recovery between reps. Plus, up to 4 x 150m, fast but relaxed. Stop while still turning over quickly without stress.
Wednesday, Thursday, Friday: Two days easy. Take one day off.
Saturday: 20–30 min. easy, with 4 x 100m strides. 20 minutes is enough for most runners to feel warmed up and striding smoothly.
Total weekly volume: For the last 7 days before the race (counting the long run last Sunday), 50 percent of normal.
Not that this is the only way to do it. Hunt says, “If there was one way, we would have had a form years ago about what to do, and just follow that.” But even top runners with the best coaching follow a variety of tapering patterns.
Lindsey Scherf, for example, who holds the world record for the indoor marathon, does a quite different taper, though the overall effect is remarkably similar. Rather than tapering progressively from 2–3 weeks out, she finds that she’s done best by taking the big drop in mileage (50 percent) three weeks ahead of the race, then returning to 85 percent of normal for the remaining two weeks. “I inject rest, but then return to a non-overtraining routine where I know I’m in a good rhythm,” she says.
The real key, Hunt says, is to allow your body to rest and be physically (and mentally) relaxed, focused, and ready to go on race day. To this end, he stresses that it’s important to make sure that your final long run isn’t too long. “You need to keep it short enough that you’re not breaking down the body.”
And, he says, the key thing is to trust the processes: “Getting a 100 mile per week runner to go down to half of that mentally freaks them out.” Cutting back from 50s to 20s is no less stressful.
“Each athlete is different,” Hunt says. “But you still have to follow the general physiological principles.”
Scherf concurs, adding an interesting note: Try out the taper before race week.
We’ve all been told never to do anything in an important race that we’ve not tested in training. Usually, that’s discussed in terms of nutrition, hydration, footwear, or clothing that might unexpectedly chafe. But why not also apply it to your taper, Sherf suggests, testing it on a less important (and presumably shorter) race beforehand, just to see how your body reacts.
After all, Bosquet’s study found that the ideal taper ranged from a 40 percent to 60 percent cutback. 40 to 60% is also a wide range, so Scherf is onto something when she says you need to find what part of that range works for you. “Not every runner responds the same way,” she says.
The key takeaway from Bosquet’s study, however, is that 40–60% is a lot more than most mileage-obsessed runners want to do. Don’t be one of them: Trust the taper, and run your best marathon.