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How To Taper For A Marathon

By Samantha Samuelson
Posted on 05 May, 2015

How To Taper For A Marathon

Tapering refers to a steady reduction of exercise before a competition or race. Doing so allows muscle glycogen stores to return to peak levels, gives muscles and connective tissues time to repair and strengthen, bolsters the body’s immune system, freshens the mind and fine-tunes the neural network so that it’s working optimally. In short, a well-designed taper prepares the body for peak performance.

The marathon taper is a delicate balance of maintaining fitness while promoting recovery. The key is to find the optimal balance between three key training elements: duration, weekly mileage, and key workouts. Many top coaches and elite athletes have differing philosophies on how tapers should be conducted. But their advice works more for super athletes whose lives are built around the sport. What I’ve compiled below are tried and tested methods that work for regular runners (and elites-to-be).

Start Your Taper 3 Weeks Before Race Day

calendarThe primary aim of the taper is to minimize accumulated fatigue, rather than to attain additional physiological or fitness gains. But after you’ve put so much into your training, it takes discipline and confidence to give your body the rest it needs.

American-record holder Deena Kastor only tapers for 10 days before the race. But not all of us are like Deena. A taper that doesn’t incorporate enough rest can leave a runner feeling burnt out going into a race. That said, a taper overabundant with rest can be mentally taxing and result in a deterioration of fitness.

My recommendation is a three-week taper plan, which seems to be the most commonly used among marathoners.


Shave Your Weekly Mileage By 20 Percent Each Week

runner restingA reduction in weekly mileage is crucial to every taper. The most effective way to cut down is with a progressive taper, where mileage is reduced every week until race day.

Experiment, learn and trust. The 20 percent figure I’m recommending is not a magic number. Each person is different. Always do a self-check on how fresh you feel before each training run. If you feel sluggish and fatigued, have the confidence to back off the mileage.


Maintain Your Training Intensity

intense runnerWhile dropping miles is integral to a good taper, it’s important that runners continue to train at competition intensity. These will keep you sharp and prevent de-training (loss of fitness).

In the final two weeks leading up to race day, make sure that your workout is specific to the marathon. Remove V02max workouts, hill repetitions or speed sessions from your schedule. This kind of training leads to muscle-tissue damage, which you need to minimize during your taper. [You may also want to read: The drawbacks of High Intensity Training]

Physiologically, your body takes 10 days to realize the benefits from a workout and completely recover. So you can’t gain any more fitness. The hay is in the barn.


Place Importance On Your Wellness

sports massageCutting back on training is just one part of a taper. You want to get to the race start feeling fresh as a daisy. Consider activities that will keep your body and mind refreshed and relaxed like massages, stretching, foam rolling, ice baths, and acupuncture. Adequate sleep and eating well is also crucial during the taper period.


Eat Smart

avocado sandwichLeading up to race day, it is important that your body’s metabolic enzymes, antioxidants and various hormones, depleted during training, return to their optimal ranges.

Increase protein intake during the first week of the taper period to aid in the repair and recovery of muscle tissue damaged during the high-mileage phase of marathon training.

To rebuild your literally "run-down" immune defences, and possibly prevent a cold or flu, load up on Vitamin C. Also stock up on lysine, an amino acid found mostly in meat and fish. That will further help your immune functions.

Many of us, when we stop exercising, also stop the daily rituals of nutrition and hydration that we have built up over the last few weeks and months. Always remember to drink plenty of fluids. And reduce alcohol and caffeine consumption during these last few weeks because they are diuretics.

Lastly, increase your complex carbohydrate intake and reduce fat intake during the entire taper period. You may experience a slight weight gain of 2 to 4 pounds during the taper period but, don’t worry, that’s your stored carbohydrate and water on board, which will come in handy during the marathon!


An Easy Run The Day Before

easy runThis run is more a psychological boost to keep you in a routine and to prevent you from feeling like you’re doing nothing. 1 to 3 easy miles should do it. This workout won’t leave you fatigued, but it will give you a little bit of confidence and nice pop in your step.

Physiologically, running will help promote blood flow in your legs and stimulate your central nervous system. This will enable your legs to respond better the following morning.


Final Word

A review of 50 studies on tapering published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports and Exercise shows that levels of muscle glycogen, enzymes, antioxidants, and hormones–all depleted by high mileage–return to optimal ranges during a taper. The muscle damage that occurs during sustained training is also repaired. And if that isn't enough, immune function and muscle strength improve as well, which reduces the odds you'll catch a cold or get injured just before the race. And get this: The average performance improvement by the subjects who tapered in these studies was 3 percent. That works out to 5 to 10 minutes in a marathon.

Some runners feel that the farther you get away from big mileage numbers, the more confidence you lose, and that it is important to keep your head close to the race distance the whole way. In those last few weeks it's the rest more than the work that makes you strong. Trust the taper plan you have put in place, knowing that reduced mileage, maintained intensity, and self-care are time-honored and science-approved ways to prepare for a race.

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