Mastering the final few weeks of training is trickier than it seems. 

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?

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First, the benefits: According to 2006 U.S. mountain running champion Nicole Hunt, who now coaches at Speedendurance.net, tapers “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 overtraining where it could slow the athlete down the most.” Additionally, Hunt notes that a well-designed taper will increase a runner’s performance. “Studies have indicated that a taper can help runners improve [performance] by 6 to 20%,” she contends.

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.

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Many top coaches and elite athletes have differing philosophies on how these three elements should blend together. Let’s take a look at what a few of them had to say over the following pages.

Duration

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, but some runners like American-record holder Deena Kastor only taper for 10 days beforehand.

Conversely, Hunt usually prescribes a three-week taper for her athletes. If you haven’t felt “fresh” at the starting line for recent races, look at the duration of your taper. Consider adding an extra week (or even a few days) of reduced volume and intensity to your schedule. On the other hand, if you’ve been prone to longer tapers and feel like you’re heading into your races too rested, shorten them up a bit. 

Weekly Mileage

Regardless of their duration, a taper requires backing off your weekly mileage in order to rest the legs for race day. Mammoth Track Club coach Terrence Mahon, who guides elite marathoners Kastor, Josh Cox amongst others, has his top runners running 120-130 miles per week during their peak training periods. Surprisingly, however, he doesn’t cut down their overall volume too much during their taper, reducing it down for most to a relatively still high 90 miles in the final week before a key race. “We have found in the past that dropping mileage too much leads to a de-training effect,” Mahon says. “We don’t lower things universally in our tapers.” Mahon believes marathoners need to keep doing long runs throughout their tapering phase. “The farther you get away from big [mileage] numbers, the more confidence you lose,” he says. Mahon maintains that the best way to keep his runners close to the “big numbers” is to give them a longer single session, approximately 17 miles, during their taper period, and then follow up the next day with a short 6 easy miles. “It keeps their head close to the race distance,” he says.

Hunt is more systematic with how she handles weekly mileage during the taper phase. In general, Hunt assigns “about a 10% reduction in mileage the third week out, a 15% reduction the second week out and the week of the marathon about a 50%+ reduction.”

Key Workouts

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. During the taper phase Mahon has his runners completing the same type of workouts they’ve been doing all along in training–mile repeats for example–but gives them more time for recovery. He calls this element the “density” of training. “We try to put some extra space in our workouts during the taper,” he says. Specifically, Mahon may give runners more time to recover between repetitions in a workout, or he may give them fewer workouts to complete during the week.

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As opposed to increasing recovery time both during and between workouts, Hunt has her athletes completing shorter, faster speed sessions during the taper. “For the final two weeks I gradually cut the mileage but maintain speed with strides and short intervals,” she says. “The focus is on recovery and goal pace for muscle memory and short bursts of speed.” Some examples of Hunt’s taper surges are 20 x 15 seconds or 10 x 30-45 seconds mostly at 3K to 5K effort.

Experiment, Learn & Trust

Taking these two differing philosophies into account, 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. As Tyler McCandless, U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials qualifier, says: “the best advice on tapering is to believe in the process.”

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About The Author:

Duncan Larkin is a freelance journalist who’s been covering the sport of running for over five years. He’s run 2:32 in the marathon and won the Himalayan 100-Mile Stage Race in 2007. His first running book, RUN SIMPLE, will be coming out in June.