The marathon taper is a critical part of making sure you are at your peak on race day. Learn how to do it right!
If you are in the thick of training for a marathon, you’ve put in a lot of long, hard hours. You’ve boosted your endurance with plenty of long runs and sharpened up your speed in your workouts.
Race day is three weeks away and you’ve just finished your longest and most difficult long run of your marathon training cycle. Now what?
Welcome to the marathon taper.
Tapering is the concept of gradually decreasing your training so that you reach the starting line fresh and at your peak. While the theory of tapering is relatively simple, there are quite a few pitfalls that runners can fall into in the final weeks before the big day.
I’m going to go over what the ideal marathon taper should look like, how to make it work for you, and what to do with all the down time that you suddenly have. I’ll also address the common mistakes that runners make during taper that can risk all the hard work you’ve done.
I’ll also cover the best guidelines for marathon taper nutrition based on your size and needs.
By the end of the post, you’ll have all the knowledge you need to have a successful taper, setting you up for your best marathon yet.
As you get closer to race day, you’ll want to begin tapering off your training so that you start on the line fresh and fast.
Your longest long run should be scheduled three weeks away from race day and the next two long runs should get progressively shorter.
The final three weeks of training before the marathon will do little to improve your fitness, since it’s already built. But you certainly can harm your fitness in those weeks, so when in doubt, less is more!
Decrease Your Mileage
During taper, your overall weekly mileage should decrease 10-20% per week. But don’t stop running completely or change your frequency of running. Your body hates sudden and drastic changes, so ease into it.
You can start by trimming your normal easy runs during the week. Your long run is dropping down as well, so that’s usually enough in the third week out.
In the second week, all your runs are a little shorter, including your speed days. If that’s not enough to drop your mileage by 10-20%, you can add a rest day.
And of course, you should always add a rest day if you are feeling particularly tired, zapped, stressed, or fatigued. Your body treats all stress the same, so if you need a break, now is the time to take it.
During the final week before the race, which is often called race week or marathon taper week, many people take an extra rest day, but not everyone does. As I mentioned, your body loves predictable patterns, so many runners prefer to reduce mileage and keep their normal frequency.
Marathon Taper Workouts
Your workouts during your marathon taper should all be about practicing your marathon goal pace in various types of tempos. This is to burn marathon pace into your muscle memory so that it becomes second nature and your confidence builds.
This period of time will also help tell you if your marathon pace goal is realistic. If your marathon paced tempos during taper feel far too hard, you are probably being too aggressive with your goal. Marathon pace should not feel easy unless this is your very first one, but it should not be super challenging for just a few miles.
Focus on Goal Pace
An example of marathon taper workouts would be a 6 mile marathon pace tempo in Week 3 before the race, a 2×3 mile tempo in week two, and a 3 mile marathon pace tempo in race week. These all, of course, will also include a mile or two of easy jogging for both the warm up and the cool down.
If you are used to two speed days a week or if you are a more advanced marathoner, you can add an additional marathon taper workout in the third week from the race.
I like to have my athletes run what’s called a taper cutdown. After a mile or two of warming up, run your marathon goal pace for four miles. Then without stopping for a rest, run four more miles just about as fast as you can. Then cool down a couple of miles.
Those faster miles might be 30 seconds faster than your marathon pace. Or they might not be all that much faster at all, but it gives you one last chance to blow the tubes out with a little speed.
For the rest of the taper workouts, forget about going any faster than race pace. This is pace practice, not fitness building. Going too fast during taper can steal your speed on race day, so stay on target.
The day before the race, a 15 minute slow jog is perfect to get the blood moving without spending too much energy.
When To Back Off Strength Training
As you taper down your running, you should also be tapering down your strength training.
Again, you should not be trying to change things up too much from normal during taper. Instead, just back off the length and intensity. So if you normally strength train twice a week, you should still do that in the third and second weeks out, but your routine should be shorter, with fewer reps and lighter weights (if any). You should never lift to fatigue during taper.
Stop strength training completely 10 days before your race. Fitness gains from strength work do not realize for about 10 days and you don’t want to risk soreness or fatigue from lifting.
It’s important to remember that you cannot not gain any fitness taper week, but you certainly can hurt it by overdoing it. You are simply going through the motions so that your body is tricked into thinking everything’s normal. If you are used to doing some mobility work such as dynamic stretching, you can continue that as normal during taper, but now is not the time to add anything new.
You Might Not Feel Better During Taper
One common misconception is that once you back off your mileage and ease up on your workouts that you’ll suddenly feel fresh and springy. That can happen to some people, but many runners actually feel the opposite.
Some of us just don’t feel good during taper. We can get cranky and moody as we adjust to the change in hormone levels from running less. Some people even start to get sick because the immune system lets its guard down after months of hard training.
Not feeling great happens to a lot of us. This is because it take 10-12 days to fully recover from hard workouts, which means you are not going to suddenly feel sparkly and peppy.
Race week can do some crazy things to runners. Some people feel nervous and anxious about the big day. Without as much running scheduled to ease the mind, nerves can get a bit frazzled. We worry about losing fitness and gaining weight. We obsessively stalk the weather forecast. And we stress about making sure every last detail is taken care of.
We get the taper tantrums.
But with some good planning, you can maximize your time and your nutrition so that you are at your best on race day.
Marathon Taper Nutrition
Planning your nutrition for race week doesn’t have to be too complicated.
In general, you want to decrease calories slightly, while keeping up the carbs. Because you are running far less in taper week than you did in training, you won’t need as many calories.
A mistake many marathoners make is not easing up on how much they eat even though they are burning significantly fewer calories. Definitely eat when you are hungry, but be conscious of eating a little lighter.
Your nutrition goal during taper is to load up your muscle glycogen stores, without gaining fat from eating more and running less. But here’s the thing: you should actually gain weight during taper. But ideally that’s from the extra glycogen and water that you are storing, not fat. Having plenty of fuel and hydration stored inside your body before the race is the goal! Don’t be alarmed if you gain 2-4 pounds while carbo-loading. I promise you, it’s a good thing!
Carbs are Your Friends
The goal for carbohydrates should be to maintain a daily intake of 3-5 grams per pound of body weight. For a 150-lb athlete this will be approximately 450-750 grams (1800-3000 calories).
That is a lot of calories and a big range, so be sure to find a number that is relative to your overall caloric needs, based on body size and how much you run.
Protein is Still Important
While you are loading up on carbs, don’t forget about the protein. Protein is needed to repair and reverse muscle damage and fatigue resulting from all your training. Athletes need more protein than sedentary people so your goal is approximately 0.6-0.7 gram per pound of bodyweight. Going back to our example of the 150-lb athlete, this would be 90-105 grams of protein per day.
This can easily be achieved by having a couple of servings of protein-rich foods.
Many of your carb sources, like grains and beans, provide protein as well. One serving of pasta has about 42 grams of carbohydrate and 7 grams of protein. One slice of whole-grain bread has about 20 grams of carbohydrate and 4 grams of protein.
What About Fat?
In order to decrease calories but keep up carbohydrate intake you will have to trade some of the calories coming from fat for more carbohydrates. Good fat should still contribute 20-25% of your total daily calories. Since you will be eating fewer calories this will mean fewer total grams from fat.
Here are some of my favorite examples of swaps you can make to cut down on fat and increase carbohydrate:
- Pancakes with maple syrup instead of avocado toast
- Pasta with tomato sauce instead of a creamy sauce
- Veggie salad with an extra dinner roll and vinaigrette instead of full-fat dressing
- And my favorite: an extra plain baked potato with salsa or ketchup instead of fatty toppings
Taper off the Fiber
As you taper down your miles, you will also want to taper down your fiber intake. While fiber is an essential part of any healthy diet, too much fiber can slow down digestion and cause GI issues on race day.
Foods like white rice and potatoes are perfect in the two days leading up to the race to be sure they are easily digested.
Now let’s talk about hydration. We know that dehydration can significantly impair performance, but it is preventable with adequate hydration in the weeks, days, and hours leading up to the race.
To ensure you are properly hydrated, sip on fluids throughout the day. Water is sufficient, but juices and sports drinks can help meet your carbohydrate needs if you are struggling to get all your carbs from food. Adding salt to your water or adding a little extra salt to your food can also help you retain water. This is normally a bad thing, but it’s a great thing for marathoners.
Drink when you are thirsty, but be sure that you are urinating every 2-3 hours and your urine should be pale yellow. If it is darker, then hydrate more. If it is clear, you may be hydrating too much. Overdrinking is a real issue for marathon runners so don’t overdo it.
The Day Before the Race
The day before the race, it’s smart to avoid alcohol. This might seem obvious, but even a small amount of alcohol can lead to dehydration and poor sleep quality. Not what you need right before the big day!
You’ll want to eat your biggest meal at lunch, not at dinner. Yes, it’s a common tradition to have a big pasta dinner the night before the race, but eating this meal earlier in the day allows plenty of time for digestion. You don’t want to be uncomfortably full on race morning. Try eating a big meal earlier and a normal size meal the night before.
Always choose foods you’ve had before. Now is not the time to try a new type of pasta or cuisine just because you are in a new town and heard about the great reviews. It could come back to haunt you!
My favorite pre-race dinner is a plate of plain potatoes with ketchup. Yes, I know that sounds a little strange, but it worked for me. I could rely on that anywhere I traveled and I knew that it would sit well with my stomach the next day!
Marathon Taper Mindset Training
So now you’ve got a handle on your nutrition and your running plans for taper. The final piece of the equation is getting your mind ready.
It’s normal to feel anxious or nervous about the big day. After all, you’ve put in a ton of work just to get to the starting line. Now that you are running less, your mind has a lot more time to ruminate over all the things that went wrong in your training and all the things that could go wrong on race day.
Acknowlegdge the Negative and Spin It
The key to handling that is not to avoid the negative thoughts, but to acknowledge them and then add a positive spin. For example, if you start thinking about that one long run that you missed or the time that you couldn’t hit your speed work on the track, accept those as facts. But then remind yourself that a good training block is built of many, many runs and no single run is more important than any other. If you’ve been able to do most of your training moderately well, that is honestly enough. And it’s far, far better than doing too much.
The next step to overcoming those doubts and building confidence is to go over your running log. Look for all the runs that you did run really well. The memories of a job well done can go a long way to quieting the negative thoughts.
A couple days a week, take some time to relax and visualize every detail of race day. Imagine yourself following your race plan perfectly. And also imagine everything that can possibly go wrong. That way, you can prepare ahead of time and you won’t be caught off guard.
Planning for a great taper can make you feel fresh and ready when it’s time to hit the starting line. Even if race pace felt a little tough on tired marathon legs, by the time you’ve recovered with a good taper, you are ready for the best marathon yet!