Tapering for a marathon

Train hard. Race well. Train hard. Race well. The runner's basic instinct. Everything we do is based on hard work. We train. We brave the elements. We endure. We run through blizzards and bronchitis. We do not wimp out. We do not rest.

This "just do it" philosophy is necessary to drag our bodies out on the roads day after day after day. With hard work and consistency, we grow stronger and faster. There is one time however, when working harder is counterproductive to performance. That time is the last 3 weeks before a marathon. That is the time to taper.

Have you ever "hit the wall" in the last few miles of a marathon despite doing all the right training? By giving you extra reserves, a well-executed taper will push "the wall" out past the finish line.

Julie Peterson, a 2:37 marathoner (and mother of Andrea) from Beverly, Massachusetts says, "I used to have a tendency to push too hard and go into the marathon tired. Now I taper for 2-3 weeks and finish my marathons feeling strong. A good taper can make all the difference over the last 4 miles."

Despite the benefits, tapering is the most overlooked phase of marathon preparation. Tapering means cutting back your training, so that your body can rebuild to peak strength. Tapering allows your muscles to repair the micro-damage of intervals, your energy systems to store up glycogen, your body to overcome the chronic dehydration of hard training, and that last bit of tendonitis in your knee or ankle or hip to finally go away.

To taper effectively for a marathon takes about 3 weeks, but our self-confidence is fragile. Our egos require the positive reinforcement of a hard workout every few days. If we take a few days, let alone 3 weeks easy, we go through withdrawal. Worse yet, we will turn to mush, and all those weeks and months of hard work will be wasted!

Despair not. With a well-planned taper, you can cut back the volume of your running and still work hard enough to stay in peak condition and get your training fix.

Use these two guidelines to design your taper: 1) a hard day should be followed by 2 easy days; and 2) both the hard days and the easy days should decrease in volume as you get closer to the race.

The taper should be preceded by your last long run. Say you're running the New York City Marathon on Sunday, November 6th. You would run your last long run 3 weeks before the marathon on Sunday, October 16th. That is graduation day. That is when the hard work is over, and it is time to shift gears, and focus mentally, physically, and emotionally on the marathon. It's time to taper!


Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday Sunday

Easy Easy Turnover Easy 5 Mile Tempo Easy 15-17 Miles

Easy Easy Easy VO2Max Session Easy Easy 11-13 Miles

Easy Easy Dress Rehearsal Easy Easy Easy Marathon

Marathon Taper Schedule

Week 1:

During week 1 of the taper, you should run about 80% of your normal training volume. The 1st week of the taper starts with 2 easy days to recover from your last long run.

How easy is easy?

That depends on how much training you've been doing to get ready for the marathon. If you've been running 80 miles per week, you should run 5-6 miles on your easy days. If you've been running 5 days per week for a total of 40 miles, you should take 1 day off, and run 3-5 miles on the other easy day.

Wednesday is a turnover workout. It has nothing to do with pastry, and everything to do with your running form. This workout may not make you into poetry in motion, but it will help you run more smoothly.

First, warmup by running 15-20 minutes easily, finishing at a track or athletic field. Then stretch gently and you're ready to start. The workout consists of 10 to 15 controlled sprints of about 100 meters each, with 100 meters jog in-between. If you choose to run this workout on the track, run in an outside lane and sprint the straightaways and jog the turns. Accelerate almost to full speed, and hold it to the finish. The secret is to run fast yet relaxed.

Think about a different component of good form on each sprint. Picture Sebastian Coe's effortless style in your mind. Relaxed shoulders and neck-check. Full extension off ball of foot-check. Hands and wrists relaxed-check. Elbows driving back-check. Upper body not leaning forward or back-check. etc... Then follow the sprints with another 10-20 minutes of easy running. This workout will help eliminate sloppy form, such as "sitting in the bucket" that can come with too much long, slow running.

Thursday is an easy day, just like Monday and Tuesday. Friday is a 5 mile tempo run, or tune-up race. Warm-up for 10-20 minutes, then run at faster than marathon pace but slower than 10K pace for 5 miles. Your 10 mile race pace should be about right. This combination of speed and distance will improve your body's ability to run hard without accumulating lactic acid, which is crucial for marathon success. Saturday is another easy day.

Sunday, October 23rd, two weeks until the marathon. This is a medium long run of 15-17 miles. If you've been training more than 60 miles per week, you should run about 17 miles. If you've been training less than 60 miles per week, you should run about 15 miles. This run helps keep your confidence in your endurance and also helps maintain physiological adaptations such as increased blood volume.

Week 2:

During week 2 of the taper, you should run about 60% of your normal training volume. Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday are easy days. You may want to take one of these days off, and just go for a walk or a swim.

Thursday is a long interval workout designed to maintain your VO2 max. Your VO2 max is the maximum amount of oxygen that your body can transport to your muscles, and your muscles can then use to produce energy. Your VO2 max session should consist of repetitions of 600 to 1,200 meters at between 3K and 5K race pace, for a total of about 3 miles of intervals. Running your intervals faster will just wear you out. If you race 5K in 22 minutes (about 7 minutes per mile), an effective VO2 max workout would consist of 6 repetitions of 800 meters in 3:20 to 3:25.

Friday and Saturday are easy days, just like Tuesday and Wednesday. Once again, depending on your typical mileage you may want to take one of these days off.

Sunday, October 30, one week until the marathon. Today calls for an 11-13 mile run. This is the last bit of distance work before the marathon, and is designed to remind both your body and mind that you are a well-trained distance-running machine. By now, you will be starting to feel smooth and powerful.

Week 3:

You should run about 1/3 of your normal weekly training volume in the 6 days leading up to the race. For example, if you normally run 60 miles per week during your marathon preparation, you would run 20 miles between Monday and Saturday before the marathon.

During week 3, try to run at approximately the same time of day as the marathon. The human body likes routine, and all its systems become programmed to run at your normal training time. By training at the same time of day as the marathon, you can help prepare your digestive system, your energy systems, and even your mental energy to be at peak efficiency for the race.

Monday and Tuesday are easy days or rest days. It is a good idea to run on one of these days to keep your muscles loose and your mind focused.

Wednesday is a secret dress rehearsal for the marathon. Put on your racing gear, shoes and all. Warm-up for 10 to 15 minutes, and then run 2-3 miles at marathon race pace, and cool down for another 10 to 15 minutes. This run will "shake the cobwebs loose" both mentally and physically. Julie Peterson says, "I love this run. It's a great confidence booster."

During this run, you should feel light on your feet and ready for the marathon. If you notice any muscle tightness or general tiredness, you have enough time to get a massage or just rest up before the race.

Thursday, Friday, and Saturday are the final frontier. All that stands between you and marathon success at this point is your own impatience. These should be easy days, with one rest day for all but the high mileage crowd.

I recommend running the day before the marathon, if only a mile or two. This final run has more of a mental than a physical benefit. Tom Ratcliffe, a 2:14 marathoner from Massachusetts, says, "The toughest part about the last week before the marathon is staying relaxed. I don't run very far those last few days, but get out there every day just to stay calm."

It is important during these last 3 days to increase your complex carbohydrate intake and reduce your fat intake. The traditional sources of carbohydrates are rice, pasta, and bread. Many of the world's best marathoners eat rice before the race because it provides plenty of carbohydrates and is easy to digest.

You should also drink plenty of liquids and stay away from alcohol (well maybe just one) and caffeine (and probably one of those too) during these last few days. Alcohol and caffeine are diuretics and dehydration is the marathoner's worst enemy. You will likely notice a weight gain of 2 to 4 pounds because your body stores 3 grams of water with each gram of carbohydrate. Don't fret-the water and carbs are both vital during the race

Marathon Day!

You wake up feeling confident and well-rested. Your taper has given you the extra reserves to take full advantage of all your hard training over the last few months.

You start the race with well-tuned muscles, fully hydrated and topped-up with glycogen. The gun goes off and thousands of runners surge forward. As the race progresses, you gradually increase your effort. You are relaxed, loose, and in control.

In the last few miles, nothing can stop you. Thanks to a well-executed taper, there will be no "wall" today. You cross the finish line feeling pleasantly exhausted.


This article is a contribution from Peter Dickson Pfitzinger, an American former distance runner, who later became an author and exercise physiologist. He is best known for his accomplishments in the marathon, an event in which he represented the United States in two Summer Olympic Games: the Los Angeles Olympics and the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

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