What elite marathoners can teach you about the marathon taper

The marathon taper is perhaps one of the most nerve-wracking parts of marathon training and often the time you find yourself questioning your fitness and training the most. Therefore, I thought it would be helpful to show you my two week taper in preparation for the Olympic Trials.

Hopefully, you can garner some insights for your next marathon taper or, at the very least, calm your nerves by realizing that even elites get nervous about the 26.2 mile distance.

Background

This is my two week taper to the Olympic Trials Marathon in November 2007.  Personally, I prefer a two week taper, but other elite athletes have their own tapering methods. For example, Bill Rodgers like 3 days to a week while Ryan Hall does three weeks for his taper.

I think two weeks is a good starting point for most people; it will never do you wrong. However, you find with time and experimentation that you do a bit better with a bit longer or shorter taper, so don’t be afraid to adjust to your individual response.

As always, remember that the idea behind these “elite training articles” isn’t that you should be looking to copy this training directly, but that you can get ideas from what elites are doing and apply the concepts to your own training.

The Training

Training October 22 to 28 2007

Monday

22 miles on roads starting and finishing at top of Mnt. Watchusett.  Medium pace (just under 6 mins per mile avg.) for first 19 miles then hard on the climb (3 miles long 1070 feet of climbing) for just over a 7min a mile avg. (21:38), 2:16:52 total time, heart rate a bit over 150bpm at finish. Tot. 22

Tuesday

AM woods 5 easy w/ gary, 37:11 tot. 5
PM woods 5 easy w/ uml guys, 36:23 tot. 5. Between runs got ART/chiro adjustment from Dr. Pete

Wednesday

AM woods 7 solo and easy, 46:34 tot. 7
PM 7+ solo easy at Maudsley state park, 49:48 tot. 7. Got ART/Chiro adjustment from Dr. Cracken between runs

Thursday

11:30AM at mines falls 19:56 w/up, couple strides, 7 1/8 mile progression run in 34:57, (3 loops of factory loop) 12:03.8 (5:04.8 pace), 11:39.3 (4:54.5pace) 23:43.1 at 4.5 miles, 11:14.1 (4:43.8pace) 34:57.2 (4:54.4 pace) 12 minute flat cool down tot. 11-

3:15PM 18 min w/up w/ tim and ruben, solo 7k on track at about mp, 21:50, felt easy as hell, splits (3:06.3, 6:15.0(3:08.7), 9:21.9(3:07.0), 12:30.3(3:08.4), 15:36.7(3:06.4), 18:42.6(3:06.0), 21:50.3(3:07.7))  17:56 cool down w/ ruben and tim. Tot. 10+

Friday

AM woods 6 solo, easy, 44:09 tot. 6

Saturday

7AM woods 13++, 1:26:14, honestly felt a little flat after staying up too late the night before tot. 13

Sunday

Noon woods 5 solo, easy, 35:07 tot. 5
5PM woods 5 solo, easy 34:51 tot. 5

Summary

96 miles for the week, 1 workout, 1 real long run, 1 pretend long run.

Training October 29 to November 4

Monday

AM woods 7 solo, easy, 46:57 tot. 7. ART and Chiropractic adjustment
5PM 5+ easy, solo at Maudsley 37:27, tot. 5

Tuesday

PM 2 w/up with Tim Guerin (uml guy), 16:28, couple of strides, 5k on the track with tim at my mp goal pace, I led until 600m to go when he kicked in nicely. I ran 15:42.4, Tim went 15:34.1. splits (3:09.2, 6:17.9 (3:08.7), 9:26.0 (3:08.1), 12:34.2 (3:08.3) 15:42.4 (3:08.2), this was super easy, 2 c/down with 15:52 tot. 7++

Wednesday

AM woods 6 solo, easy 41:53 tot. 6
PM woods 6 w/ uml guys, easy, 43:52 tot. 6

Thursday

AM travel to New York City
PM 31:53 out and back from hotel along bike pace on the east river tot. 5-

Friday

AM 29:34 out and back from the hotel mostly in central park, also stopped for 4
easy strides with jog back rest in the park, not included in time, tot. 5-

Saturday

AM 12 min w/up, few strides, Race Olympic trials marathon, 7th place 2:14:56,
the biggest 32 second pr of my life. Much tougher course then where I ran my debut/old PR.

Sunday

9AM 24:34 out and back along the east river, I’m calling it 3 because it hurt so
damn much but in all honesty I’d be willing to be it was less then 2.5 tot. 2

Summary

65 miles for the week, well ok so that was the best race of my life so far. I’ll leave it at that.

Race 5k splits
5k- 16:54
10k-32:27 15:33
15k-48:03 15:36
20k-1:03:33 15:30
25k-1:19:04 15:31
30k-1:34:55 15:51
35k-1:51:17 16:22
40k-2:07:44 16:27
Finish 2:14:56
Last 2.195k in 7:12

What you can learn

Reduce workout intensity and don’t challenge energy systems you haven’t used

It is assumed in a taper that you are going to reduce your volume, which is good. However, a mistake many runners make is trying to do workouts that are of equal intensity, but think they are lowering the difficulty by reducing the volume.

For example, I often see people who have been doing long, hard workouts try to do short, speed-oriented workouts.  The problem with this approach is that by doing a type of workout you haven’t been doing throughout your training cycle, you actually fatigue your muscles more because you haven’t used that specific energy system in a long time.

Looking at the workouts I did

The final long run on the first Monday is a great example of reducing intensity, but not volume.  The volume is as long as my normal sessions but I reduced the intensity by a lot.  Basically running at normal training pace for the first 19 miles and running the last 3 miles at a hard effort. In a normal workout, at least 3/4 of the run would have been at marathon effort. Despite looking long to most, this session was quite a bit easier than my normal training.

Thursday of week one also demonstrates this concept. By splitting up the workout into two sessions – morning and evening, I was able to keep the volume roughly the same, but reduced the difficulty and intensity of the workout as a whole. If I had combined the two workouts into one session, that would be about a normal marathon specific workout.  For athletes doing lower volume I would have them just do one of these two sessions on this day, so it’s much easier then normal.  During the taper, each successive workout should get easier.

Don’t reduce your volume too much

The single biggest mistake I see in marathon tapers is that people over-taper the last two weeks leading into the race.  This leads to feeling flat and sluggish on race day and increases the chance that you’ll come down with a cold by race day.

The sudden reduction in work load confuses your body and causes your metabolism to crash. In simplified terms, you over-recover, which means your metabolism drops and your immune system is left very susceptible.

With that said, you also don’t want you to go out and run your full volume two weeks out or run a ton of miles in the five days before your race.  The general rule I like to follow is the 80/60 principle. 

The first week of the taper you want to run about 80% of your regular weekly volume during the marathon specific phase.  The week of the race you want to run about 60% of your highest weekly volume.  Remember, unless you are running Boston, a Monday marathon, you don’t have a full week leading in to the race. With the race itself being 26 miles, it can throw off your weekly totals, so it should not be considered part of your normal training week.  So, you would do 60% of what you would have done for five or six days during your marathon specific face, depending on if your race is on Saturday or Sunday.

For example, for a Sunday marathon, if you average 70 miles a week during your specific phase, that is 60 miles for a six day average (10 miles a day). Therefore, you would be looking to run about 36 miles (60% of 60 miles) for the six days leading into your race.

You should also keep in mind that you aren’t going to feel great at the start of the taper.  You have been training hard and you shouldn’t really be feeling great until you get into the last few days before the marathon.

If you find in your taper that you are feeling great 9-10 days our from the race but then feel flat on race day, you can change to a shorter taper for your next marathon.
Finally, the mileage in your last two weeks should be front-loaded, meaning you run a greater percentage of the mileage early in the week. In our previous example of a 36 mile final week, you wouldn’t run 6 miles for the 6 days of the taper. Rather, each day should drop off a bit as it goes on.  For example, 10 and 8 miles the first few days and 2-5 miles the last two days.

Race Rehearsal

I think the best time for your last workout is four days out from your marathon. My preference is a two-mile or five kilometer tempo run at marathon goal pace.  You should  warm-up exactly as you plan to on race day, which for many will be very little or nothing at all.  Then, run your tempo at race goal pace – NO FASTER.

I know my average 5k average during the race was actually 15:59 and I ran 15:42 in my final workout,  but for logistical reasons, I was on the track and the race was on the rolling hills of central park.

Always keep your terrain in mind when you are training.  If your doing your workouts on the track and you’re racing Boston or NYC for your marathon, you need to understand your race pace will be slower then what your workouts are indicating.

In general I suggest you do your specific work on as similar terrain to goal race as possible, but if you make an exception for one or two workouts, particularly during the taper, it is fine as long as you adjust the paces accordingly.  This last workout should feel very easy, which is what you’re looking for. The purpose of the workout isn’t to gain any fitness, but serves as a little wake up for the body – the hay is in the barn as they day.

Good luck with your marathon taper, I know it can be a nerve-wracking time. Please don’t hesitate to leave your questions or comments on anything above. I promise I will answer any question asked!

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14 Responses on “What elite marathoners can teach you about the marathon taper

  1. Thanks for the article Coach Nate. I am running Boston 4 weeks from yesterday and although Coach Jeff will be giving me my workouts, it helps mentally to prepare for the taper. I know I always feel like I gain weight those 2 weeks. I’m always fighting it’s not good to starve myself versus eating as much as I was without the same training mileage. Physically the last marathon I ran, CIM in December, I think Jeff did a great job with the taper workouts. I still fought those thoughts as race time approached, that I was fat and out of shape. I did have a great performance and hopefully I’ll remember that as I’m on the bus to Hopkinton.

  2. Dannis- I’m a guy who puts on weight pretty easy as well, so I know the fear you are talking about.

    You can get away with not eating as much up to about 3 days out, but that is unpleasant and not recommended. What I do is switch up what I’m eating. I make all my snacks pretty much veggies during the taper. I’m a carb monster and I graze pretty much all day, so this enables me to keep my normal routine of eating while not really taking in a ton of calories.

    Then, two days out, I let myself eat every carb that comes down the line, but keep the meals to under 600 cals or so, which is pretty small. Anything beyond 600/700 cals that you eat in a single sitting will be stored as fat, not glycogen. So eat a bunch of small meals. I went out to eat twice the night before the olympic trials, pasta at the first meal, pizza at the second. Desert at both.

    To be honest though the biggest thing is the mental side. If you put a couple pounds, so be it. The big thing is to deny every negative thought heading into a big race. So you start to think, gee I’m still eating a lot but not running much, immediately cue in “I’m building up energy stores for the race I’m going to have energy in the last 10k like I have never experienced before”. When you start thinking “gee i’m feeling sluggish”, immediately shift to “good I should be at this point my body is super recovering and I’m going to come right on race day!”

    I mean, take this to the extreme – someone says “I don’t know how you can do a marathon” you respond “its the greatest experience you’ll ever have” They say but doesn’t it hurt, you answer it is a physical journey that lifts your soul. Deny the premise of negative statements or thoughts. When you do this once it is silly. when you do this all day for two weeks leading into a race, shaping every thought, every conversation into a positive reaffirmation you, arrive on race day having annoyed just about everyone you know, which is fine it was just two weeks, but more importantly you arrive KNOWING you will run well on race day. So when only 6 miles in your notice your legs feel tired you’ll react by saying that is fine my lungs feel great, and power on instead of packing it in.
    Good luck at Boston!
    nate

    • Wow, thanks Nate. Alot of great feedback there, especially the small meals and calorie counts before the race and the positive self talk. I feel better already, I wish the race was in the morning.

  3. Great advice! I especially appreciate your positive thoughts practice. Self-doubt starts creeping in the week before a marathon, and I need a way of refusing those thoughts. Thank you! Going for a PR at Boston – I’m ready!

  4. Hello,

    This is going to be my first time running Boston! I’m scared, but excited!! My training wasn’t on target as much as I would have hoped. Is there anything you suggest to calm the nerves race day? I have a very sensitive stomach, so I’m scared to eat anything, but know I have to. What would be the safest choice?

    Thanks so much!
    Heidi

  5. This is my first Boston marathon too. I take comfort in reading everything you posted.
    What to eat before is my biggest mind challenge as it is a late start. My metabolism is pretty fast. I Struggled with some self doubt all of sudden today. Ekkk Hate that !! Feeling sluggish so your comments on that made me feel better

  6. Hi Nate, Thanks for the great article! I’m writing on behalf of my sister who, despite doing everything right, has still come down with a cold 5 days before her marathon… She is an experienced runner, and she is hoping to qualify for Boston on Sunday May 5th. Any ideas to get over the cold quickly, running a marathon with a cold, getting race-ready with a cold?

    Thanks in advance, I really appreciate your help.

    • Sorry to hear about your sister. Not much she can do but drink as many fluids as she can, take vitamin C and all the other cold remedies, and get as much rest as she can (which will happen anyway with the taper). She just has to remain confident and not let the cold mentally defeat her. She should be fine physically.

  7. hi there

    i really want to understand the science behind Emil Zatopek who does huge volumes of 200m and 400m interval training and yet he popped out world class times.

  8. Hi!

    I’m running my first marathon in 4 weeks time and I want to run the fastest time I can but I’m struggling with a pacing strategy and goal time.

    Relevant stats:

    Age: 40
    Vo2max (lab measured recently): 65.2
    Half Marathon PB: 1:21 (2008) – run at av 92% max HR (on very light training)
    Current training load: Average 25 miles / week for 4 months (mix of road and trail)

    Obviously my training load is very light, and I’ve done no runs of longer than 16 miles for over 2 years. However I’m fitter now than I’ve ever been and I’ve never trained more than 25-30 miles a week on average.

    As an experiment this weekend I ran a half marathon in 1:29 at an average of 83% max which felt extremely easy. However, I’m obviously afraid of my total lack of experience running further than 13 miles.

    What time goal should I aim for for the marathon, and what should my training be for the next 4 weeks?

    Thanks!
    Andrew

  9. Hi Nate!

    I’m running a half marathon in 3 weeks and I’m aiming to go sub 1:10. My biggest concern is the taper. I’ve been running really well lately and feeling even better. But I don’t want to over do it or under do it these final weeks. Any advice? (I’ve been averaging 85mpw if this helps)

    Thanks

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