Written By: Coach Carl Leivers
The marathon taper is a very important -- and very misunderstood -- part of marathon training. It often takes on a somewhat mystical quality, but the reality is that it should be a fairly simple, straightforward process.
To help you put together a plan for your marathon taper, I've outlined the four principles of what I call the "F.A.S.T." taper. Each of these is equally important in my mind, so take care to incorporate each, and you'll be well prepared for a great performance on race day!
NOTE: For our purposes here, I'm using the term "taper" to refer to the three weeks leading up to race day. There are approaches to marathon training that will use a longer or shorter time frame, but this is the most common, and I have found it to be effective for most people.
Freshen up with lower mileage
I often hear people say something like, "The taper is when you get fully rested for the marathon." This understanding is close to the truth, but I think it also can lead to trouble.
To me, the taper is when you want to eliminate any lingering fatigue, but that is very different than being fully rested.
Fully rested conjures up images of lazy naps on the couch and sipping cold drinks. You will still be training (and in some cases training hard!) during your marathon taper. That's why I like the term "freshen up" rather than "rest up" -- the taper is still an active process.
In practice, this means you need to do a few different things with your training:
1) Shorter long runs
It's pretty common knowledge that your long runs need to be shorter during the taper. But you want to make sure that you don't overdo it. Cut back too much and you risk losing fitness.
If you're in shape for a marathon, long runs of 12-16 miles during the taper should not leave you at any risk for lingering fatigue and will be long enough to maintain the endurance you worked so hard to build over the course of the training cycle.
2) Shorter speed workouts (but not slower)
I like to have my runners cut back the overall volume of their speed work during the taper, but I keep the intensity the same. For example, instead of five to six times mile repeats at half-marathon pace, maybe they'll only do four during the taper. But we don't want to slow down the pace or increase the rest or we risk losing fitness.
3) Cut SOME miles during the week
I also like to back off the mileage slightly on runs during the week. But I do mean slightly. The way I approach it is to look at the athlete's training week, decide which miles are the most likely to create lingering fatigue and cut those.
As an example, if the athlete is running an easy four to five mile run twice a week, I won't cut anything from that. Those runs aren't difficult, and it's counter-productive to cut miles off recovery runs. But if the runner has an eight to 10 mile medium-long run in the middle of the week, that may become a seven to eight mile run during the taper to be safe.
Adjust your race plan
The taper is not just about getting physically ready to race. You need to take the time to get mentally ready as well.
By this point in your training, you should have a LOT of information about how your training has gone and how you're feeling. Maybe you've done some practice marathon pace runs, or some speed workouts that are a good checkpoint for your fitness or some tune-up races. All of those should have given you a great opportunity to learn what works for you in terms of hydration, fueling and pacing. If you need to adjust any of that, do it now so that you still have a couple of opportunities to practice it before race day.
You also need to check in on your goal times. It can be really hard to admit that you might not be ready to run the time you were aiming for at the start of your training cycle, but now is the time to sit down and take a hard look at what your plan for the race day should be.
If you need to pick a new time, that is not a problem -- it gives you a much better chance to have a successful, enjoyable experience. The important thing is that you have a clear, confident plan for the race that is realistic for your current fitness. And deciding that now will help you make sure you are locked in for race day.
Sharpen your goal pace work
Speaking of goal pace...if you haven't been doing any practice at goal race pace (or you need to practice your NEW goal pace), now is the time to start. I recommend including some race pace work during your speed workouts as well as in some of your long runs. That way, you can be very familiar with how goal pace feels before race day.
Don't be afraid to finish your long run two weeks out from the marathon at your goal race pace. You will still be able to recover, and that practice of goal pace while you're fatigued can be a very good mental boost if you haven't practiced it to this point.
As much as possible, try to do your goal pace work on a route or surface that is similar to what you'll be running on for the race so that you can really start to get a good feel for it.
Take care of you
Over the course of your marathon training cycle, you've logged hundreds of miles, sacrificed dozens of social events and worked your body hard. Now is the time to be good to yourself.
Don't wait until the week of the race to begin focusing on the "little" things. Start working on good sleep habits, staying hydrated, eating right and cutting back on life stress at the start of your taper. The longer you can keep up those good habits before the race, the more effective it will be.
If you put these F.A.S.T. principles into practice, you'll get to the start line ready to run your best and take advantage of all of the hard work you've put in. Then the only thing that's left is to run the race and celebrate!
About Coach Carl Coach Carl is a USA Track & Field Level 2 endurance coach who works with runners of all ability levels to reach their goals. He has been featured in Runner’s World, Women’s Health, Men’s Fitness and Competitor. For information on his coaching services, click here.