How to Taper For a Marathon

You’ve pushed through tired legs on your long runs; hit the track for speed workouts until your shoes were soaked with sweat; and recorded enough miles to put your car to shame.

With three weeks to go until the big race, all the hard work is done, right?

Well, yes and no.

While all the physical work is in the bag, ensuring success on race day requires special attention the marathon taper. The marathon taper is a delicate balance of maintaining fitness while promoting recovery. The following is a step-by-step guide to making sure you get the marathon taper right.

Three weeks before goal race

1. Reduce weekly mileage to 85-90% of you maximum.

It’s actually not too difficult to reduce your mileage by 15%. For example, if you’re running 50 miles per week, you only need to cut out 7 miles from your weekly running routine. This can be done by giving yourself an extra rest day or by simply cutting out 2 or 3 miles from your regular recovery runs.

2. Maintain intensity

Some training plans begin to drastically cut workout volumes starting three weeks out from the race. I think this is a mistake to avoid if you’ve been training diligently for 16 to 20 weeks. Physiologically, your body takes 10 days to realize the benefits from a workout and completely recover. As an insurance policy, I suggest performing your last workout 13 days prior to the marathon; starting the taper too early robs you of another potentially great workout.

Make sure that your workout is specific to the marathon – you don’t need any V02max workouts or speed sessions at this point. The workout should be similar to what you’ve been doing the rest of your training plan (i.e. no need to get nervous and think you need to blast the best workout of your life).

3. Reduce long run volume by 10 to 20%

You don’t need to completely eliminate the long run yet, but you do want to avoid making yourself too tired. If your longest run so far was 20 miles, I suggest a run anywhere from 16 to 18 miles. However, listen to your body. If you feel sluggish and tired, have the confidence to cut the long run back.

Two weeks before goal race

1. Reduce weekly mileage to 70 to 75% of maximum.

Reducing the mileage this week is actually easier than last week. Your long run will be shorter and your intense workouts, which should be your biggest volume days, will also be reduced. For example, a 50-mile week will be reduced to 35 to 38 miles. With no long run and less intense workouts, your easy recovery miles should remain relatively stable or minus only a mile or two.

2. One medium intensity workout.

Your last workout of any real difficulty should be on Monday or Tuesday. The volume of this workout should be reduced by 60-70% of your normal hard day. For example, if your tempo intervals usually total 9 miles, this workout should be about 6 miles in total distance. Again, make sure the workout is marathon specific, so no VO2max workouts. This is a good opportunity for you to practice marathon pace.

3. Reduce long run by 50 to 60%

At this point in your training the “hay is in the barn”. You can’t gain any more fitness, but you can certainly tire yourself out. The distance of this run is more a psychological boost to keep you in a routine and to prevent you from feeling like you’re doing nothing. If you’re feeling fatigued, don’t hesitate to back off the mileage and opt for a shorter distance.

The week of the race

1. Significantly reduce mileage.

If you thought training was tough, wait until you try to reduce your mileage the week before a marathon. It takes discipline and confidence to give your body the rest it needs. You should consider giving yourself an extra rest day while reducing your daily runs by 50 to 60% of their normal volume. So, if you’re used to running 8 miles on your easy recovery days, you should target 5-6 miles instead.

2. One mini fartlek session

I advise doing one very easy fartlek session to help alleviate nerves and to remind your body what marathon pace feels like. I suggest performing a workout like: 15-20 minute warm-up, 6-8 x 2 minutes at marathon pace with 2 minutes easy running between, 10-15 minute cool down. This workout won’t leave you fatigued, but it will give you a little bit of confidence and nice pop in your step.

3. Run the day before the marathon

I advocate running the day before the marathon. I suggest running anywhere from 1 to 3 miles very easy. Running will help promote blood flow your legs and will make you less nervous. Running the day before a race also stimulates the central nervous system, which will enable your legs to respond better the following morning.

Tapering for the marathon is a very difficult task. Whether you’re an experienced veteran looking to set a new personal best or a beginner running the marathon for the first time, the marathon taper is filled with anxiety and nerves.

We also have some other very helpful resources on the marathon taper you might find helpful:

Just remember that you’ve put in the training and don’t go overboard on the taper.

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References

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11 Responses on “How to Taper For a Marathon

  1. Thank you very much for this article. I like the way it was organized, very helpful.
     
    One question: When you say marathon specific workout, what kind of workout are you talking about? Can you give me an example?
     
    Thanks again!

    • Hi John,

      Thanks for the comment, they are much appreciated. To answer your question:

      A marathon specific workout is a type of workout that addresses the specific demands of the marathon race; fuel efficiency and aerobic threshold (i.e. running comfortably at marathon pace). Each distance from 5k to the marathon has very specific physiological challenges while also sharing training elements in common. So, whenever an article or a coach says a “distance specific workout” they mean workouts that target the physiological processes that are critical to that event.

      An example of a marathon specific workout in the taper portion of a marathon segment would be 2 x 3 miles or 2 x 2 miles (depending on your total weekly volume) at 10-15 seconds faster than marathon pace with 3 minutes recovery.

      Good luck if you’re running a Fall marathon!

      Coach Jeff

  2. I’m starting my taper for my first marathon (Space Coast). I’ve heard of people tapering their caffeine intake during this period, too, so that on race day a cup of coffee and the caffeinated gels really wake them up and give them a boost. But I’ve also heard that I shouldn’t make any changes leading up to the race. Can you give your opinion?

    • Great question, Sam. This is something I have experimented with (caffeine tapering) and didn’t find any real difference between remaining consistent and tapering intake levels on performance.

      My recommendation is this: If you’re a heavy caffeine or no caffeine consumer, then you need to maintain that ritual during the taper. If you’re a light to moderate caffeine consumer, changing intake levels the week of the race won’t change much, so do whatever makes you most comfortable and confident.

      Hope that helps!

  3. Pingback: Taper time | runsploring

  4. I ran my first marathon last year and did a 3 week taper. This year I am running with my friend who is wanting to do a shorter taper. If we do our longest 20 mile run on May 18th and race day is June 1st is that a long enough taper?

    • That really depends on how well you handle long runs and probably your overall mileage. Someone running 70 miles per week and regular runs in the 18-20 range is going to recover pretty quick. If you’re doing 40mpw, it’s going to take you much longer to recover.

  5. Thanks for this article! It answered so many of my questions about tapering. Another thing I was wondering about is if you’ve been doing strength training through out the training cycle then do you want to continue it during the taper and just decrease intensity or do you stop doing it? and if so at what point?

  6. Hi coach Jeff

    I am writing to you from India and hoping you can help me sort out a lot of confusion in my mind! I am going to be running my first full marathon on 19 Jan 2014 (have previously run 4 half marathons with a PB of 1:59). I have been training hard this season with long runs, fartleks and intervals. My first question is regarding goal pace/goal time. I am just not sure what my race time target should be. If I look at my half marathon PB, I assume I should be aiming for a 4:10-4:15. But Im just not sure whether it quite works this way. So far my 20 miler practice has been 3:21 – but Im getting stronger and fitter and 3 days back I ran about 14 miles in 2:04. Could you guide me to a target time I should keep in mind and work towards? Most of my runs are now in the 9:09 – 9:40 per mile pace bracket and my intervals/fartleks are in the 7:10 – 8:00 per mile pace bracket

    My other question was on taper (also the reason why Im on this page). Is it alright to do interval training 3 weeks out from the marathon (I understand you do not recommend this any closer than 3 weeks to the race). Is it okay 3 weeks out to cut back mileage but keep the intensity (pace) as high as it has been over the rest of training – or is it necessary to reduce the intensity along with the mileage as well?

    Is a 3 week taper ideal in your experience? Or can it be 2 weeks without harming your race day prospects?

    I look forward to hearing from you.

    Thanks
    Mangesh

  7. Hi!
    Great and very helpful article!
    My question is about speed workouts, like tempo or intervals. When should I do my last speed session during 3-weeks of tapering? On a week two?
    Thanks for the answer,
    Evgeny

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