Maximize the Benefits of Your Marathon Taper

Truth or Consequences
Truth or Consequences (Photo credit: kxlly)

If you are training for a fall marathon, you are no doubt either in taper mode or about to hit your taper.  The “taper” is the last 2-3 weeks of training where you begin slowly reducing your weekly mileage and allowing your body to recover from months of heavy training.  The taper is key as it will allow you to go into your race rested, strong and ready.

Whether it is your first or 20th marathon, I have some insights to help you maximize the benefits of your taper.

1.  The First Week You Won’t Feel Like You are Tapering.  At all.  I always get excited when I put in my last really long run and cap off the high volume week that inevitably preceeds the taper.  I think: Sweet!  I finally I get to rest.  But the truth is, the cut back the first week isn’t very substantial and you are still tired from that long run and high volume week.  So don’t expect to be feeling fresh during week one of taper.  And don’t panic if you are feeling a bit exhausted and beaten down.

2.  You May Not Actually Feel Rested At All Until Just Before the Race.  After the first week,  you’ll definitely feel the drop in volume and length of your long run.  But your legs may begin feeling like logs.  And you may start having all sorts of weird aches and pains.  This is okay.  In fact, I think it goes to show how much our body really needs the rest and recovery to be at its strongest on race day.

3. You Need to Clean Up Your Diet.  If you haven’t started making sure you are eating right, now is the time to do it.  Make sure you are making healthy choices.  Cut out (or at least cut down on) the junk food and alcohol.  Focus on more whole foods and nutritious choices.

4.  Don’t Restrict Your Diet Though.  If you are simply starving during the taper, don’t tell yourself that you can’t have an extra snack simply because you are not running as many miles.  Your body needs fuel to recover, and one of the biggest mistakes you can make is to be overly restrictive during this critical time.  This is particularly true for the week leading up to the race.

5.  Sleep.  Go to bed a little earlier and sleep in if you can.  Hopefully your lighter training mode will give you a little more flexibility.

6.  Don’t Pick Up a New Sport to Compensate.  Just because you have more free time doesn’t mean you should sign up for a new boot camp class or start cycling like a mad woman.  You NEED to rest.  If you start something new in the weeks before the race, you will stress your body and inhibit recovery.  You may even injure yourself.

7.  Cut Back!  Seriously.  Don’t decide you simply can’t take tapering and run a 20 miler the weekend before the race.  You need your rest/recovery time and you may seriously jeopardize your race by neglecting the taper.  Embrace it.  You’ve worked hard for months.  Enjoy this time.

relax (Photo credit: twicepix)

8.  Don’t Freak Out.  It is easy to get edgy as you have more time on your hands and the anticipation of your big race looming.  You have done all the work and your primary goal is simply to rest up, recover, and get into a great mental groove.  Look over your training log and see how much you’ve progressed.  Review the course map and figure out your race strategy.  Find your confidence and go with it.

If you are tapering too, chime in here with your own taper truths!  

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Mindi is a serial marathoner. She is a private practice attorney, wife and mom of two awesome (and super fast) boys, ages 12 and 14. She coaches Girls on the Run and is a big advocate of youth running.

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  1. Number one and two. Ugh. I was just saying today on my very easy 5 miler this am to my running partner…”why do my legs feel MORE sore and tired this week than last”????? I do a two week taper, which I started last week. I will run in the Akron marathon this Saturday. I have been through this before. I am all too familiar with the phantom aches and pains. I woke up this morning and my knee ached just a teeny, tiny bit.

    I don’t know about you, but I get very anxious. I just want to run already!!! It’s like Saturday cannot get here fast enough!! But, I am cleaning up my diet (I started that weeks ago). No alcohol, eating as clean as I can, etc., etc. I am just so pumped for this race!!! I trained hard, felt strong, and the weather looks to be perfect for me.

    I have an outfit question for you Mint & any other Salty runners. At the start, which is at 7 am, it looks like it will be between 46-53 degrees. Every weather channel is different. I am definitely wearing shorts. My question is this. Should I wear a tank and arm sleeves or should I wear a tank and a long sleeve shirt over the tank? Gloves?

    1. Good luck this weekend!! I can’t wait to hear how it goes. You are chasing 3:30 right? As far as an outfit goes, I would wear a tank and shorts/skirt. Bring a long-sleeved cotton throw away shirt to wear before the race (and even first mile if you want) and ditch it once you get going. Those temps sound perfect! Go get it!!

  2. My other taper observation is that my longish run the weekend before the marathon usually sucks. I am slow and my heart rate is high. This doesn’t happen to everyone, but I know a few people that say the same thing. This is THE reason I will not do a 2 week taper. I don’t know why, but I always need 3 weeks.

    1. That’s interesting! This past taper I did 16 @ 6:47 pace and felt fantastic 3 weeks before the marathon and with a two week taper 6:50 felt harder than that. In fact, since my first I’ve only ever done a 2 week taper and I have yet to feel good in a marathon since!

      1. My last long run was two weeks before the marathon. I did 18 at race pace and felt absolutely amazing. It honestly was the best training run I have ever done. I do have to credit my friend, though. He is training for Columbus and he really pushed the pace and made sure we did not trail behind. I haven’t ever run with a guy before in a training run, so that was a nice change. I did 8 miles this past Saturday. Felt ok, but I felt better running 18. Weird.

        I am chasing 3:30, so I will see. I know from other people that Akron is hilly. Honestly, I will be happy with 3:35 too. I have a lot more confidence going into this race than I did for Cleveland and I ran 3:36 there. So, I think I am going to do well:).

  3. I think your tips are pretty spot on Mint, especially the diet one – good carbo-loading requires you to be a bit depleted midway through the final week, plus every pound matters come race day. It should be pointed out that you will/should gain some weight the final few days, particularly, as you build your glycogen stores which also increases your retained water – but this is a good thing, as both will come in handy (and melt off) during the race.
    The only thing I might add, based on my experience this week, is to try and quarantine yourself as much as possible (without missing out on your other commitments) too – avoid sick children, don’t bend down to tie shoes during a soccer game, etc. This one’s tough, but it’s amazing the non-running opportunities we have to injure ourselves.

    1. I totally agree with you and second your tip on quarantining yourself if possible. I am also known to be drinking Airborne and green tea a fair bit in hopes of boosting my immune system back up! I don’t know if it works, but runners often get sick during the taper so I do everything I can to try to avoid it.

  4. I really needed to read this right now. I was seriously considering hitting some spinning and bootcamp classes since I’m not running as much. They wouldn’t be new activities for me, but they wouldn’t be rest either. I’m taking this article as a “here’s your sign” to obey the taper! Thanks.

  5. Couldn’t run my scheduled 20 last Sunday due to a calf muscle issue but ran two 20 milers over the last month. My 3 week taper started this week but I’m considering running 20 this weekend with a two week taper. I’ve been working out 6 days a week with 5 runs a week for 15 weeks so my fitness is good but not sure if I should just proceed with my three week taper or change plans. Thoughts?

    1. I wouldn’t do it. You have 2 20 milers under your belt and you didn’t run the last scheduled one due to injury. Don’t push that injury now. Plus, a 20 miler this weekend isn’t going to provide you with any additional fitness before race day. I recommend following your scheduled taper and trusting in your training. We all miss a workout or two and it is okay to just go with it and move on. I understand it is mentally really hard when it is a 20 miler you mess with – but just move on – you’ll be fine without it and you can only do more harm than good by doing it this weekend. What I would recommend is throwing a couple of goal marathon pace miles in at the end of your regularly-scheduled long run. Good luck and let us know what you decide!