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Maximize Your Taper: Tips for Spring Marathoners

If you are prepping for a Spring Marathon, the time to taper is just around the corner. 



For folks racing Boston, the race is about two weeks away, and for folks racing the Eugene Marathon, we are about a month out from the big day. This means the bulk of your hard training is behind you (or almost, Eugene Marathoners). It’s time to embrace the taper!


Let’s take a look at what a typical taper looks like, so you have a better idea of how to navigate this pre-competition period and reach the starting line feeling your best.


What is a Taper?


When you are in your marathon build up and training for your target race, you are gradually increasing your mileage, which is the “volume” component of your training, while also doing workouts that provide the “intensity” stimulus to your program. You are working at that higher intensity a certain number of days a week, and running a certain number of days per week, which is the “frequency” component of your training.


This type of training is essential, as it prepares your body for the demands of your race. However, the heavy volume, frequency and intensity of your training create a layer of fatigue (By now I’m sure you are very well acquainted with this). A taper is a systematic decrease in training during the pre-competition period to maximize race day performance. The goal of the taper is to reduce some of the parameters of your training so that you show up to your race feeling fresh, rather than fatigued and lead-legged.  With an ideal taper, we want to reduce that fatigue, while simultaneously maintaining fitness. 


How Much Should I Taper?


Now we know the gist of what a taper is, but, how long should you taper for? The length of a taper varies based on both the individuals’ preference and the distance of the race. Some of this may require a little trial and error. The more experience you gain running, the better you will be able to read your own body and fine tune this process.


VOLUME.

 A recent meta-analysis on the effects of tapering on performance in endurance athletes indicates that a pre-competition decrease in volume “plays an essential role in reducing accumulated fatigue and attaining maximal performance.”(1) Their recommendation based on a compilation of studies was to decrease your volume by 41-61%, as this resulted in a significant race performance benefit.


INTENSITY.

Research indicates that we do not need to reduce intensity to maximize our taper.  In fact, some world class marathoners such as Galen Rupp have been rumored to run very fast 100m strides a few days before their race, to maintain sharpness. It has been found that decreasing training intensity did not increase race performance. With longer distance races, it is recommended to maintain 85-95% of your training intensity.


Pre-taper overload training has also yielded good results. What this means, is doing a quality, hard effort right before your taper works well for some. This is because the relative rest period of the taper that follows the harder workout results in good training adaptations. I like to say that you can only train as hard as you can recover. Thus, research supports that one last hard effort before the taper results in “supercompensation” (which is the goal of training), because you are giving your body adequate time to recover from the big effort. You can find more on training theory and how this works in this previous post.


Thus, right before your taper is a good time to work hard, and once the taper starts, your normal intensity (speed on workouts) should be maintained, not increased or decreased.


FREQUENCY.

Like intensity, the frequency of your running should be maintained, or decreased slightly. Even though your volume is down, and these runs will be shorter, keeping your workout days and the same number of runs will help you maintain your usual schedule. Some folks find this maintenance of routine helps keep them sane during the taper.


DURATION.

Race results are typically maximized when tapers lasted between 7 and 14 days, but there is research indicating that some folks do well with a longer, 3 week taper.




Tapering and Your Strength Routine


We talk a lot about how strength training is an important part of any running training plan, and for good reason. As we have discussed previously, strength training has a myriad of benefits for runners. By this point in your training block, your body should be fairly accustomed to the various multi-planar movements you are performing when you lift. You likely aren’t experiencing the post lifting soreness that you may have experienced when you first started lifting. Now is not the time to try something new and adventurous at the gym. However, as your running training tapers, we don’t want to drop the strength work completely.


I would encourage you to continue your lifting up until race week. If you are concerned about muscle soreness or fatigue impacting your performance, you can taper your strength training just like you are tapering your running, lifting a little lighter and with fewer sets in the last few weeks before race day, with more of an emphasis on maintaining movement patterns and range of motion.


Trust the process.


Whether you are preparing for Eugene and just starting to look ahead and think about your taper, or you are in the thick of those taper weeks in prep for Boston, it is important to avoid the “Taper Tantrum.”


A Taper Tantrum can typically present in two different ways. You may be the athlete who feels fatigued, sore, and irritable when the volume and intensity of your training decline. Or, you may be left feeling restless, itching to get out the door and put in more and more work. Compared to previous weeks the amount of training you are doing may feel inadequate, and you may fear you are losing fitness.


If you are in the overtired camp: enjoy the extra time. Rest up, using your extra time to prioritize sleep, fueling, and hydration. (If you need more convincing as to why prioritizing sleep is a good idea, check out this previous post.)


If you are in the restless camp: embrace relaxing/stress relief pursuits with that extra time. It’s important to remember that cramming in hard workouts now will not serve you well on race day, and can actually negatively impact your performance. As someone who lives in this camp, I find having a running buddy, physical therapist, or coach to keep me accountable here is key. Even if you know on an intellectual level that you need to taper, having someone to remind you of this can be reassuring, and can help keep you in check. The hay is in the barn, and you don’t want to burn the barn down by trying to squeeze in an extra workout, it’s too late for that.


Overall, remember to trust the process. Give yourself a pat on the back, you’ve put in the hours and hours of hard work. The hard training is done, now it’s time to recover and rest up so you are feeling your best on Marathon Morning! Although the above parameters can be helpful in guiding your taper, it is important to remember that your taper is as unique as you are. 


There is no ‘best’ taper, because runners are so individualized. Thus,  it’s best to follow these general guidelines and see what works best FOR YOU.

If you are having any last minute niggles, it’s not too late to get them addressed. Sometimes a physical therapy tune up session or two can be all it takes to keep you on track in these last few weeks leading up to race day. Or, maybe you are feeling healthy but know you could benefit from a bit of recovery boost. Zenith also provides recovery sessions. You can sign up for an appointment or learn more here.




1 Wang Z, Wang YT, Gao W, Zhong Y. Effects of tapering on performance in endurance athletes: A systematic review and meta-analysis. PLoS One. 2023 May 10;18(5):e0282838. doi: 10.1371/journal.phone.0282838. PMD: 37163550; PMCID: PMC10171681.


2 Smyth B, Lawlor A. Longer Disciplined Tapers Improve Marathon Performance for Recreational Runners. Front Sports Act Living. 2021 Sep 28;3:735220. doi: 10.3389/fspor.2021.735220. PMID: 34651125; PMCID: PMC8506252.




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