Marathon training is hard—the long runs, hill repeats and the arduous track sessions take a tremendous toll on both the body and mind. When many marathoners review their training schedule they get giddy at the sight of the taper, which typically starts two to three weeks out from race day. The reduction in volume and intensity is a welcome one. But what many runners don’t realize, however, is that the taper can be just as (or even more) difficult as the rest of the training cycle.
Why is this? How does a taper help a marathoner in the first place and why do you need them?
First, the benefits: A taper will bolster muscle power, increase muscle glycogen, muscle repair, freshen the mind, fine-tune the neural network so that it’s working the most efficiently, and most importantly, eliminate the risk of over-training where it could slow the athlete down the most. It will increase a runner’s performance. “Studies have indicated that a taper can help runners improve [performance] by 6 to 20%,”.
So what exactly is a “well-designed” taper?
The key is to find the optimal balance between three key training elements: duration, weekly mileage, and key workouts. A taper that doesn’t incorporate enough rest can leave a runner feeling burned out going into the race, while a taper overabundant with rest can be mentally taxing and result in a deterioration of fitness.
How long you taper for usually depends on the distance of the race you’re targeting and what kind of mileage you’ve been logging from week to week in training. A typical taper for a marathon is two to three weeks and a half marathon should be about one to two weeks.
Regardless of their duration, a taper requires backing off your weekly mileage in order to rest the legs for race day. Normally this is about a 10% reduction in mileage the third week out, a 15% reduction the second week out and the week of the race about a 50%+ reduction.”
Workouts, along with running mileage, are stressors on the body. As such, a sound tapering regimen reduces both the frequency of the workouts, along with their duration, in order to maximize rest and recovery leading up to the race day.
Experiment, Learn & Trust
Look at your next taper as an opportunity to vary it in some way. Aim for the right balance in your routine: adjust your mileage and fine-tune your workouts by either giving yourself more time to rest or maybe even picking up the pace. Find what works best for you.
At the end of the day, the most important thing is to trust in your training.
(Reference: The Art of Tapering, by Duncan Larkin for Competitor Magazine)