After months of training for a marathon, it is a great feeling to hit your peak mileage of training and complete your last very long run. But then what? It’s time for the marathon taper! Some runners love the taper, others hate it. Many look forward to it but then struggle to taper correctly. You may have heard of taper tantrums and phantom pains happening around this time. All of this is totally normal. In order to survive the taper and use it to your advantage, you need to taper correctly. There’s not just one way to taper for a marathon correctly, but you do need to figure out what works best for you. This will involve understanding the why and how behind the taper, as well as understanding yourself as a runner along with trying things out from one race to the next.
What is a marathon taper?
A marathon taper is when you gradually reduce your mileage leading up to the race. Your training should have less volume over the weeks before the race and it should be progressive and intentional. You will keep in some speedwork, but the amount will also be reduced. Even though your weekly mileage is lower, you will still be running the same amount of times per week, although your schedule may be adjusted during race week. During this time you will likely also taper any strength training that you were doing during your training cycle.
What are the benefits of tapering for a marathon?
The taper period allows your muscles to recover after months of hard training. It also gives your glycogen stores a chance to return to normal amounts in preparation for your race. This will ensure that you have the fuel needed to get you through your marathon.
Tapering can also help prevent the risk of overtraining by reducing the workload during your final weeks leading up to the race. It gives both your mind and body a chance to recover after the peak weeks of training.
One study of cross-country runners found that tapering can help improve fast-twitch muscles fibers and lead to faster race times. However, a structured taper plan needs to be followed correctly in order to avoid feeling flat on race day. In other words, cutting back too much, for too long, with not enough intensity can backfire and lead you to not perform your best.
What does the research say?
Studies show that tapering works! In 2021 a study was done using the Strava data from recreational athletes. It found that athletes who followed a strict 3 week taper had the largest finishing time benefits: a median of 5 minutes 32.4 seconds or 2.6%!
A shorter taper period was effective as well. A strict 2-week marathon taper was associated with an improvement for men from 1.29% – 2.14% and for women from 2.19% – 3.12%.
However, 3 week marathon taper was associated with a 1.76% – 2.39% improvement in men’s marathon finishing times. A 3-week taper for women saw an improvement in finishing times from 2.73% – 3.19%. That is a huge improvement when running a marathon!
What does a marathon taper look like?
During each week of a marathon taper you cut a percentage of mileage from your peak week of training. Typically you run about 60-65% of your peak mileage two weeks out from the race, and 40-50% the week of the race, not counting the mileage of the race itself. So if you ran 50 miles 3 weeks before the race, you might taper with 30 miles two weeks before the race and 20 miles the week of the race.
Depending on what workouts you were doing in training, you would include some intensity throughout the taper. About 10 days before your marathon you might do your final big workout (a longer weekday run with marathon-paced miles, for example) and still have a long run the weekend before the race. 4-6 days before the race you might do another workout that is shorter or with less reps, like a fartlek run. This might be intervals at marathon pace with a minute or two or recovery in between. Your paces for these workouts should be specific for the marathon.
You should also cut back on strength training when you taper for a marathon. Two weeks out from the race you may do some lighter strength work, and maybe just one session early in the week. During the week leading up to the race it’s best to not do anything that might leave you sore. Instead of strength training keep up with any mobility work you have been doing and just use the extra time to rest up for your race.
How many weeks should you taper for?
Marathon tapers are typically two or three weeks long. A 2007 meta-analysis looked at multiple studies on tapering for swimmers, runners, and cyclists. Both the two and the three week tapers were effective, but the two week taper produced the maximum desired response. A more recent study in 2021 analyzed the training activities of more than 158,000 recreational marathon runners. They looked at the duration of the taper (one to four weeks) and how strict the runners followed the taper plan. This study found that three week tapers were associated with the best finishing times, but more importantly those who stuck to a strict taper had the best results. Those who followed a strict taper ran about 5:30 faster than those who followed a relaxed taper!
Based on the research it seems that either a two or three week taper is effective, and you might need to experiment to see what works for you. But more important than the length of the taper is actually following a strict taper plan. If you do use a three week taper, consider only reducing your mileage slightly when you are three weeks out. Otherwise you may end up reducing your workload too much over too long and feel flat on race day.
What workouts should you do during the taper?
When you taper for a marathon you should follow the same training schedule that you used throughout your training. If you were doing 3 easy runs, 1 workout, and a long run, then you will follow that same schedule. However, your runs will be shorter than they were in weeks before the taper. Strides are great to use after an easy run, but don’t start doing them during the taper if you weren’t doing them during your training.
Other than strides, any other workouts should be done around marathon pace. A couple weeks before the race you can include longer marathon pace workouts. As the race gets closer you can start doing shorter intervals. These will allow you to get in some miles at that pace so your legs remember what it feels like without leaving you sore or fatigued.
What else should you focus on during the marathon taper?
Here are some other tips for making the most of the taper weeks:
- focus on getting enough rest and sleep
- increase your carb intake 2-3 days before the race
- keep up with mobility and any recovery plan that works for you
- work on your mental strategies for race day
- plan out any mantras you will use
- finalize your race day fueling plan
- prepare logistics for race day
- reflect on your training and finalize your goals
Looking for a full marathon training plan?
Check out my 18 week marathon training plan!
How long have you tapered for a marathon?
Do you look forward to the taper or dread it?
Any other tips on how to taper correctly?
Now it’s time for the Runners’ Roundup! Link up your running and fitness posts below! Join myself, Coach Debbie Runs, Confessions of a Mother Runner, and Runs with Pugs to post your favorite running tips, experiences, race and training recaps, workouts, gear, and coaching ideas.