By Lauren Riccardi, DPT, OCS, CSCS (pictured below, after completing the 2017 Chicago Marathon)

 

Tapering for a half or full marathon is a critical part of any runner’s training program. As we approach spring and racing season, it’s important for runners to understand the reasoning behind – and the importance of – a proper taper.

What is a Taper?

A taper is the period before a race when training volume and intensity is reduced to allow the body to rest and recover before race day. Tapering for a marathon starts after the last long run and typically lasts three weeks. For a lot of runners, the taper is the hardest part of their training, as “rest” is not a word they’re used to. But tapering is vitally important if you want to be ready for race day.

During this rest period, even if you’re not working as hard as you have been, your body is. During tapering, your red blood cell count and VO2 max increase, something that has been shown to improve marathon performance since the body is able to take in and carry more oxygen to your muscles during your 26.2 race. Tapering also allows your muscles the time to truly recover, your hormones, enzymes, and electrolytes to return to normal levels, and your immune system to bounce back.

Some studies have shown that a proper taper can improve race day performance by around 3 percent – for a marathon, that can mean reducing your overall time by 5 minutes. To perform your best, rest before your race. Here’s how to do it right.


WEEKS BEFORE THE MARATHON

 

Figure out the maximum amount of mileage you’ve done in one week during your training. This week, do 85% of that maximum. The idea this week is to run the same number of times a week, but run less distance. If you’re body is tired, though, listen to it and run fewer days a week. Your regular runs this week should start with a two- to three-mile warm up, followed by a tempo run of 4-5 miles at race pace, followed by a mile cool down. Your long run should top out at 10-12 miles.  Don’t do intense speed or interval workouts – at this point, they won’t add anything to your marathon performance.

It is important to listen to your body now. If you’re feeling tired, injured, or fatigued, take an extra off day. This time off will not affect your race day fitness.


2 WEEKS BEFORE THE MARATHON

This week, reduce your mileage to about 70 percent of your maximum – you should be cutting speed and distance. This is also the time to pause any weightlifting workouts you are doing on the side.

You’ll probably be running 4 or 5 days this week, depending on your training program, but keep your intensity at a moderate or low level, ideally steering clear of interval or speed workouts. Your long run should top out at 10 miles.


THE WEEK OF THE MARATHON

Significantly reduce your mileage this week, and rest, rest, rest!

Plan on doing one or two runs this week, at or under 6 miles. Do your regular stretching and foam rolling.

You should also do some mental preparation. You might have a goal of 3:30:00 and plan to take an energy gu every 45 minutes and drink the Gatorade at every third water stop.  But what happens if you wake up and it’s hot and humid? You may need to adjust your plan. Prepare for what you’ll do in different scenarios now. Be prepared for different weather conditions and plan different outfits just in case.

The day before the race, you can run 1-3 slow miles to shake out your legs and your nerves.


RACE DAY!

Today’s the day! Review the weather, figure out if your plan for nutrition and hydration makes sense, and make any necessary tweaks. Make sure you’re wearing the right outfit for the weather. Then, do what you’ve been training to do. Today’s not the day to try shoes, foods or drink you haven’t used before. You’ve trained for this and you’ve got this. Go your pace on your rested and strong legs and crush your personal record!


NUTRITION AND HYDRATION DURING YOUR TAPER

What about your diet during this time. It’s simple: keep eating! Your body is relying on this time to build up energy.

Even though you aren’t burning as many calories, you should keep eating at the same pace. This means you might gain a few pounds during the taper – this is good and normal! Carb loading is important for storing extra glycogen for the muscles to use in events lasting over 90 minutes, so make sure you’re eating enough carbohydrates in these three weeks. Make sure you’re eating a well-balanced diet with carbohydrates, proteins, fruits and vegetables. Increase the amount of carbohydrates you eat a little bit each day, peaking the day before the race, so that the majority of what you eat is carb-based.

Your hydration is also very important around this time. Keep your body hydrated and be careful with your alcohol and caffeine intake – both are diuretics and can deplete your body of needed fluids. It’s also important to eat things that you’re used to.

Don’t try new things in this three-week period – whether it’s stretching routines you haven’t done before, new cuisines, new workout classes – you don’t quite know how your body will respond.


The bottom line is that it’s hard to taper. When you’ve been running for weeks and you’re feeling strong, it can feel counterintuitive to stop before a race. But you should. Even if you feel amazing three weeks before the race, the point of the taper is to make sure you feel fantastic on race day.  Be disciplined and hold back.


Articles you can read to learn more.

Effects of a Training Taper on Tissue Damage Indices, Serum Antioxidant Capacity and Half-Marathon Running Performance

Single Muscle Fiber Gene Expression with Run Taper

Tapering for marathon and cardiac autonomic function