Marathon Taper - The Complete Taper Guide including the 10 Don'ts of Marathon Tapering

When training for a marathon, you have, no doubt, read and heard about the marathon taper.

Now, what is a marathon taper and why should you do marathon tapering?

Is there a right and a wrong way to tapering?

Lots of questions.

A good taper will set you up for marathon success, a bad one can ruin your race.

So, time for a discussion on the do’s and don’ts of marathon tapering.

In this article I’ll cover off on:

What is a Marathon Taper?

Why Should I do a Marathon Taper?

How Long Should I Taper?

How Should I Decrease My Mileage During the Marathon Taper?

Decrease mileage, not intensity

What Should I Eat During a Marathon Taper?

The 10 Don'ts of Marathon Tapering

What is a Marathon Taper?

The marathon taper is the period just before your race. It can be two or three weeks in length (more on that below). The purpose of marathon tapering is that you get much-needed rest after months of training.

Why Should I Do a Marathon Taper?

Those months of training will have had their toll on you. You would have slowly gotten more and more tired. Only rest can fix that problem!

But, you might say, won’t I loose my fitness? I have worked so hard all this time and now you want me to rest up for two or three weeks? What’s up with that? Have you lost your mind?

Or something slightly less aggressive… :)

Well, like I said before, marathon training has its toll on you. It gets you more and more tired as the weeks progress. Simply continuing to train hard becomes counterproductive at some point. All it does is get you more tired and it doesn’t help you get faster anymore.

marathon taper
Use the marathon taper to catch up on your sleep!

Compare this when you are studying hard for an exam for several weeks on end. You are cramming and cramming, studying every minute of the day.

They are long days and you study till deep into the night. It gets you exhausted and you’ll get to a point where your mind just won’t absorb any information anymore.

It’s at that point that it would be best if you had a really good night’s sleep and then continue the studying again the next day. And you’ll find after the good night’s sleep that everything is suddenly a lot easier. The two pages that took you 45 minutes yesterday, now only take 10 minutes.

That’s sort of what a marathon taper accomplishes for your body. It gives you rest, your legs and mind become fresh and you’ll be ready to roar on race day, rather than be fatigued.

running quote rita rudner

How Long Should I Taper?

So how long should the marathon taper be? Well, opinions vary. In reality it depends on the marathon training schedule you have used and yourself. If the schedule is a more traditional high mileage schedule, then a taper of three weeks is advisable.

If the schedule is a little less focused on high mileage and more on quality workouts, then two weeks can be sufficient.

You’ll always see marathon training schedules either using two or three weeks.

Anything shorter than that will not give you sufficient time to rest up and anything longer than that is unnecessarily long and can compromise your fitness.

Making up your own schedule and not sure what to do? Then go for three weeks of taper.

How Should I Decrease My Mileage During the Marathon Taper?

So, how should you decrease your mileage during the taper? General guidelines are as follows:

Week 1: Reduce your mileage to about 70-80% of highest weekly mileage

Week 2: Reduce your mileage to about 50% of highest weekly mileage

Week 3: Reduce your mileage to about 25-35% of highest weekly mileage

Again, this depends on the schedule you have been using and yourself. Factors like how old you are and how quickly you generally recover are important.

marathon taper10
Eat healthy and nourish your body during the taper

However, the above guidelines make sense for most of us.

As we get older and recovery is tougher we probably have somewhat lower peak mileage as well.

So, you’ll find that the above rules make sense for most of us!

Reduce Mileage, Not Intensity

Probably the biggest mistake I see runners around me make is that they see the marathon taper as a period of only easy running. They mistakenly think that they not only have to reduce mileage, but that they also have to reduce speed.

This can kill many marathon dreams!

It will leave you with "stale legs", i.e. you’ll have the feeling that you will have lost all ability to run fast at the end of the three weeks.

So, you can still do intervals, you can still do your tempo runs. However, they should be shorter, in line with the guidelines provided before.

E.g.if a normal interval session is something like 12 x 400m, then in week 3 make it a 4 x 400m session. That’s actually a pretty good session to fire up the legs one more time before your marathon, without overexerting yourself. Just make sure you do that last session at least four days out from your marathon.

What Should I Eat During a Marathon Taper?

marathon taper101010
Life is slower when you taper

During the taper, as during your whole marathon training period, stay focused on eating healthy foods. Make sure you don’t overeat or undereat. You might find that you need to eat a little less during the marathon taper period as you are reducing your mileage.

However, it is not bad to gain 2-4 pounds (1-2 kilos) during this period. During the final week you need to carbo-load. This means eating extra carbohydrates to ensure your glycogen levels get topped up. You do this during the last 3- 5 days before your marathon.

You also need to make sure you stay hydrated. Drink some extra water in the lead-up to your marathon.

Of course, drinking alcohol is not advisable. We are all human though, we are not machines, so just having a glass of wine at night with dinner a couple of nights per week is fine.

I explain more about marathon diet on the marathon training nutrition page.

The 10 Don'ts of Marathon Tapering

Now, over to the 10 don'ts of marathon tapering. Well, there are a few things you shouldn’t do, some of them highlighted before. I’ll list them here with some short explanations:

1. Don’t Reduce the Intensity of Your Runs

Keep on doing intervals and tempo runs, just reduce the length of your runs.

2. Don’t Cram in a Last Long Run

If you have missed out on some training for some reason, it will be tempting to cut your marathon taper short and add in a final long run or another high-mileage week.

Don’t do it.

I hope I have made clear that the marathon taper is an absolutely essential ingredient to marathon success. You do need that rest. Even if your training hasn’t been great, taking the rest is almost always going to be better than not.

3. Don’t Make Up for Your PERCEIVED Loss of Fitness in Another Way

Don’t decide that because you are not running as much, you can instead go for a long bike ride. Or do some extra weight lifting. The purpose of marathon tapering is to give your body a rest. Replacing the running effort by another sport is not going to give you a rest. Simple as that.

4. Don’t Second Guess the Taper

You will get that feeling. "Ah, you know what. I actually feel great. I am not tired at all anymore. I reckon I am one of those people that recovers exceptionally well. I can do with a little more of extra training."

Well, ,guess what, chances are you are not superhuman.

Don’t give in to feelings of nervousness or feelings that you have got this all under control. Just take the time to rest up, give your body a break. The big race is waiting in less than three weeks, save your energy for that one, not for crazy last-minute training!

marathon taper
For some of us, the taper period is SOOOO frustrating!

5. Don’t Get a Massage in the Last Week

A professional sports massage can be great. It helps loosen up the muscles, it can help prevent injuries etc. However, did you know that deep-tissue massage like this actually counts as a hard training day? Yes, it does.

So my advice is always to don’t do a massage in the last week before the marathon. It will do more harm than good. More than one week out? No problem, but don’t do it the last week before the marathon.

6. Don’t Do Quality Runs in the Last Three Days Before Your Marathon

With quality runs I am referring to intervals, tempo runs and long runs. There is no place for them in the last three days before your marathon. Just stick to easy 20 or 30 minute efforts. Enough to get the legs warm, keep up lactic acid removal etc.

7. Don’t Go to the Expo or the Pasta Party

Oops, hope no race organisers are reading this… :)

I would highly recommend being cautious with going to the marathon expo or the pasta party. When it is busy, you will spend a lot of time on your feet within 24 hours of race day.

Some of us consider it part of the experience. Something we need to be part of. Yes, maybe, but just keep in mind that the next day you will be running three, four, five hours or more, depending on your ability.

So, make sure you don’t spend too long there and don’t spend too much time on your feet.

marathon taper
Avoid the pasta party, don't avoid the pasta!

8. Don’t Go Crazy with Sightseeing

Ever spent a (long) weekend exploring a city? It does get you tired, doesn’t it? When you are doing your marathon in a big city you haven’t been before, it’s awfully tempting to go for an explore.

It is easy to not be disciplined when there is so much to see and do in a new exciting city.

Again, time on your feet is crucial here. You don’t want to spend a whole day running around from one place to the other just before your marathon. Want to do some sightseeing anyway? Then see if you can book a bus tour or do something else that is mostly NOT on your feet.

You can also reserve some time after the marathon is over. However, many of us can barely walk the day(s) after a marathon, so you might find your sightseeing plans derailed!

When you want to do some sightseeing do it early in the week preceding your marathon. The last two, three days should really be focused on that marathon.

Now, you don’t have to live like a total recluse those last few days, but just be sensible. Really want to visit a museum and this is your chance to do it? Sure, go ahead, spend a few hours there. Just force yourself to take breaks in between. Make a point of sitting down whenever possible. And don’t spend all day on your feet.

9. Don’t Let it All Be. Control Everything You Can Control

I once listened to a talkback radio session in which they had some elite athletes on the line talking about preparing for big events. Their motto was: "Control everything you can control."

Simple things, like knowing where bag drop-off is, when you need to be there, how to get there etc all makes a major difference to your nerves on race day.

Visualizing the course map and knowing where the hills are will help tremendously as well. I have done races and talked to fellow-competitors who have admitted things as being totally surprised by a steep hill towards the end.

When you know it is there, you can prepare for it!

Controlling everything you can control means you know all those things and have less to worry about on race day.

But you can interpret it more widely, i.e. you can plan your days ahead of your marathon in more detail. Know when you’ll eat. Know what you’ll be having. Know when you go to bed.

This might sound so simple, but if you are travelling to a different city for your marathon and aren’t in your home, then you can’t rely on your normal routine. After all, often when we go on city trips we live a bit unhealthier than usual.

10. Don’t Get Unrealistic Goals in Your Head

When you get to the starting line you need to have a reasonable idea of the time you’ll run. This should be based on recent races and your recent training.

Check out the marathon pace page of this website to work out what a reasonable time would be for your marathon. And then check the marathon pacing strategy page to work out how to achieve your marathon goal (click pics below to get access to these very useful pages).

When you have completed your marathon taper successfully, you will feel great on race day. 

Great marathon tapering can be the reason you run your personal best on race day or not.

So, focus on it and enjoy the reduced training load after months of very hard training.

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