Tapering correctly for a marathon is an important part of race preparation. Many long distance runners who don’t taper, or who don’t know how to taper properly, may find it can have a negative impact on race performance.
I’ve noticed that many runners (myself included at one point) and particularly first time marathoners, don’t always understand the full potential of a proper marathon taper. And the positive effect it can have on race day. So let me share with you my top tips on how to taper for a marathon.
Why do we taper before a race?
After 4 – 6 months of intensive training and a lot of running miles, we want to ensure we are giving our greatest performance during the race. We want to maximise our muscle strength and repair damage done by regular training. Correct tapering is all about keeping up your fitness levels while giving your body time to recover.
When should tapering begin?
Usually for a full marathon your taper would begin 3 weeks before the race. It’s at this stage you want to start reducing your weekly mileage by around 15%. This is not a huge amount and is easily done. Depending on your peak mileage you can simply cut back by just adding an extra rest day in your week. Or by cutting back 2-3 miles (3-5km) from your usual easy recovery runs.
Less is more
Cut back the miles but keep up your workout intensity. Cutting completely back is not necessary when your body is used to training at such a high level. An ideal type of workout around 3 weeks before the race would be a tempo run: with 2-3km warm up, 5-6km at goal marathon pace, then 5-6km at half marathon pace, plus a 2-3km cool down. This will give your body practice running at your goal marathon pace.
When should your last long run be?
Your last long run should be done usually around 3 weeks before the marathon. 3 weeks before, try to do at least one marathon pace run around 9-11km. This is to make sure you are comfortable with the pace.
2 weeks before marathon race day
Cut your mileage to around 50-75% of what you’ve been training at. During the last 2 weeks keep your workouts marathon specific and at marathon pace. There’s no need for any short intensive speed work at this stage. Any intensive training will risk fatiguing your muscles, when you may not have enough recovery time.
Pre-race marathon massage
If you choose to opt for a pre-race sports massage do this at least 1 week before the marathon. A deep tissue massage can have the same effect of a workout on your muscles, so it’s best to leave plenty of time to recover.
Final week before the marathon
Keep up with your normal pace, but cut your usual mileage to around one third. If you slow your pace too much it can leave you feeling lethargic. Resist the urge to try anything new or different that could affect your race day performance. This includes trying new foods, new running clothes, or new activities. Go easy on the strength training in this final week, or skip it all together. Now is the time to let your muscles rest and recover.
Ensure you’re sticking to your usual eating plan and don’t be changing your eating habits. Avoid bloating by eating smaller portions, load up on healthy snacks, lots of vegetables and good quality whole-grain carbs.
Carb loading for a marathon
Carbohydrates are a major fuel source for our body and we know they’re a vital part of a runner’s diet, particularly during a marathon. Muscle glycogen is our main source of energy during long distance running. By loading up on carbs we are storing extra glycogen in our muscles that will give us more energy on race day.
During tapering you will be reducing your running mileage so you won’t need to consume as many calories. Just make sure you are keeping up with the carbs to add to your glycogen stores.
Stay hydrated and get lots of sleep
Dehydration can have a huge impact on performance, especially in the final week before a race. Ensure you are sipping on fluids throughout the days in the build up to the race. Avoid drinking anything alcoholic as it has a dehydrating affect on your body, and can even disrupt your sleep. You should be aiming for the required 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep per night, especially in the final week. Rest is an important part of recovery.
Don’t get worried about aches and pains during your taper weeks – it’s your body repairing itself after months of intensive training. The marathon taper can fill us with nerves and paranoia, and it’s normal to feel some anxiety. Use this time to think about all the training effort you’ve put in, and how hard you’ve worked to get to this point.
If you’re prone to stress try to avoid stressful situations and take time to do anything that usually helps you relax – yoga, meditation, a walk in nature. I find reading helps me to unwind and switch off.
A week before the race I usually pack up all of my marathon kit in advance, it helps me to worry less, and makes sure nothing is left until the last minute. I also try mentally preparing myself by going over the course map.
Tapering properly before a marathon helps us to fully prepare and ensures our bodies are ready. It also gives us confidence that we’ve done everything we possibly can to make sure we will have the best race we can.