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Tapering for a marathon: How to reduce training to improve performance

Tapering for a marathon is essential. It can be a challenge to stay in top shape without being fatigued. This post features tips for striking that balance.

Designing a marathon training plan can be difficult. Knowing what to do in the run-up to the big day is one of the hardest parts. Marathon training can leave you feeling sluggish and fatigued. But, this doesn’t mean you’re overtrained. Experiencing a moderate amount of fatigue during the many weeks of training is normal. Having recovery weeks in your schedule can help battle fight any fatigue caused by training.

As the marathon gets closer you’ll need to cut back your training for longer periods to ensure you’re well-rested for the race. Tapering for a marathon is critical. In this blog post, adapted from Advanced Marathoning, 3rd Edition we’ll look at how reducing your training can improve your performance.

Benefits of tapering for a marathon

Tapering has many benefits. It corrects the wear and tear caused by training. The taper period is when your body fully recovers and adapts to training. It provides time for the microcellular muscle damage caused by training to be repaired. Plus, it allows the glycogen stores to be fully replenished.

Studies have found that a well-planned taper can lead to improved running economy, as well as an increase in muscle strength and power. It has been found that tapering can lead to an increase in red blood cell count. It may also lead to increased aerobic enzyme activity and an increase in VO2 max.

In addition to the many physiological benefits, tapering also offers positive psychological benefits. It can help improve in mood and reduce the perception of effort during training. An effective taper should leave you feeling mentally refreshed with increased motivation to reach that finish line.

Tapering for a marathon: improvements in mood
Tapering can improve your mood and reduce the perception of effort

The extent to which you benefit from tapering depends on the intensity and volume of training you’ve been doing. Plus, how long you’ve been pushing your boundaries and your body’s capacity to adapt and recover from training. The harder and longer you’ve been training, the more effect tapering is likely to have on your training.

There has been a lot of research into tapering. Most studies found improvements in performance. Reviews of many papers on the physiological responses to and benefits of tapering show that a well-planned taper can lead to a 2-3% improvement in performance.

More information can be found on tapering in our blog post from May 2018, Tapering your programme to improve performance for competition.

How long should you taper for?

Several studies have investigated the relationship between racing performance and taper duration. It’s been concluded that the optimal length of a taper is from a week to three weeks. For a marathon, the general consensus is to taper for a minimum of two weeks, with three weeks being optimal. Too short a taper can leave you tired on marathon day, whereas tapering for too long can lead to a loss of fitness.

A workout gives you less than a 1% improvement in fitness. Whereas, a well-designed taper can provide an improvement of several per cent. Therefore, it’s wise to err of the side of tapering too much rather than not enough. For a marathon, a well-design three week taper can leave you optimally prepared and recovered for the race.

How can you reduce your training to improve performance?

Because training load is the combination of your training volume, intensity and frequency, you can reduce your training load in several ways. Coaching experience and scientific evidence shows that the greatest improvements in performance from tapering comes from reducing training volume. Reductions in mileage of 20-60% have been found to lead to the greatest improvements.

How much you reduce your overall mileage depends on your current training volume, past experience and overall health. Generally, older runners tends to require slightly more time to taper than younger runners. Based on research, many discussions with elite marathoners and coaches, the authors recommend the following for cutting back your mileage:

  • Third week pre-marathon: Reduce mileage by 20 to 30%
  • Second week pre-marathon: Reduce mileage by 40%
  • Marathon week (6 days before race): Reduce mileage by 60%

Three weeks before your marathon is arguably the most important time for a successful taper. This is the week that most marathoners do too much because the race still seems a long way off. If you work too hard during this week, you might find yourself feeling flat with two weeks to go and struggling to rest up as quickly as possible.

It’s much better physiologically and psychologically to allow your body to start to freshen up during this week. This puts you in a more relaxed state of mind. Allowing you to feel that your marathon preparation is on track rather than stressing that all of your efforts are going to be wasted.

Sample tapering schedule for a marathon

Based on the optimal tapering criteria, here’s a sample tapering schedule for a marathon (Figure 6.1).

Sample three week tapering for a marathon
Figure 6.1. Sample three week marathon taper

This tapering programme is taken from Advanced Marathoning, 3rd Edition. By following this schedule, your mileage would have peaked at 70m per week. And you would have run your last 20 miles on the Sunday before the start of the taper. You can find a more detailed look at the programme in Advanced Marathoning, 3rd Edition.

By tapering for a marathon this way, you’ll reach the start line feeling fully prepared. Then, all that remains is the little matter of covering 26.2 miles as fast as you can.

Tapering your other training

When you start cutting back your mileage, it can be tempting to increase your other training. For the most part, try to resist that urge. Approach your core, resistance, flexibility and cross-training as you do your running when the marathon gets closer. The main work is done by this point. Your goal should now shift to maintaining the gains you’ve made while allowing your body to rest up for race day.

Keep your resistance workouts to a minimum in the last 10 days before a marathon and eliminate them in the last few days. It’s OK to continue gentle versions of core training and cross training until a few days before the race. Flexibility training is fine to do right up until race day, but go overboard. If you’re used to a few 10-minute stretching sessions per week, don’t suddenly devote an hour a day to it in the week before your marathon.

Tapering for a marathon: stretching is fine but don't go overboard
Flexibility training is fine to do right up until race day, but go overboard

The same goes for form drills. If you’re used to doing them, it’s fine to do a short sequence in the week before the marathon. As with flexibility training, the drills help you feel looser during your taper which can provide peace of mind while you’re reducing your running. Again, don’t suddenly add new exercises or increase the amount of drills you do during your taper.

Conclusion

Each runner is unique and responds differently to training. This is particularly true for tapering. Physiology, personal history and beliefs come together to determine your optimal taper. To understand how to design an optimal taper, keep track of how you respond to various tapering plans. Write down what you did for training during the taper period, how you felt leading up to the race and how you performed on race day.

By tracking your responses you’ll be able to adjust your taper routine over time to find the balance of volume, intensity and duration that brings out your best race performance.

Adapted from:

Advanced Marathoning, 3rd Edition

Pete Pfitzinger and Scott Douglas

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Hi, I’m Hannah, marketing assistant and one of the bloggers here at Human Kinetics Europe. I wasn’t blessed with the coordination to play most sports, but that’s not stopped me becoming a great watcher of them. Particularly when it comes to football! So I’m here to bring you all you need to know about exciting new product releases and the latest in sport, fitness and PE.

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