Login | June 18, 2019

Marathon peaking and tapering

Pete’s World

Published: October 1, 2018

With the fall marathon season just around the corner, I thought this would be an appropriate time to talk about that crucial two to four week period prior to the big day. This pivotal period in the marathon season is called the taper, and it can either make or break your race.

As defined by Mujika, Inigo, Padilla, Sabino, in their article Scientific Bases for Precompetition Tapering Strategies, published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: July 2003, Volume 35, Issue 7, pages 1182-1187, “The taper is the final period of training before a major competition and is of paramount importance to an athlete’s performance and the outcome of the event.”

It’s important all right, and as I’ve discussed before, the taper is utilized in nearly every sport, with each sport having its own peculiar tapering methodology. Now with respect to marathoning, the taper is typically employed with the aim of letting the legs recover from the constant pounding they’ve endured throughout the regular training season. But actually it’s more than just letting the legs recover. It’s much, much more.

In reality a taper lets the entire body recover. Indeed, it’s specifically during this taper period that numerous physiological systems throughout the body acquire all of the gains derived from those many months of running workouts. Blood volume and red blood cell count can increase, VO2 max can increase, and the volume of glycogen in the muscles can increase.

Yet despite the benefits cited above, proven through years of testing by legions of exercise physiologists, there’s always a cadre of runners who just can’t take that step into the unknown. Unfortunately, the instant some of these runners deviate from their regular running routine, well, that’s the moment they enter running purgatory––that hellish domain where they have to deviate from their regular running schedule.

And for the uninitiated marathoner, a taper period can be a time of second-guessing oneself, of frazzled nerves, of muscles just aching to cut loose and let it go for that last killer workout.

These are times when it's easy to convince yourself that your listlessness, your increased appetite, and your phantom aches and pains are due to a lack of regular training. These are the times when you have to resist the temptation to do more.

But once you’ve made it though a taper and had a successful marathon, that’s when you become a believer. So with this being said, let’s take a generalized look at how to plan your taper for a marathon.

The first key to a proper marathon taper is timing. There’s such a thing as a thin taper, too little time, and conversely, a fat taper, too much time, and both are not helpful for a successful marathon. The former could leave you slightly overtrained while the latter could leave you stale.

Ultimately the length of a taper depends on the runner’s ability level and familiarity with marathon training. Novice level marathoners would typically have a longer taper period than seasoned marathoners. For instance, if you were doing your first marathon and you’d never really trained with that kind of specificity, then a three to four week taper would be appropriate. A seasoned marathoner, on the other hand, might only need two to three weeks for a taper.

Now with respect to running volume, in general most all tapers tend to reduce the weekly training volume by 40 to 50 percent. The intensity remains the same, but remember, that’s also at a reduced volume. Making sure to keep some higher intensity within the taper period insures the body doesn’t go into hiatus as it would during a total recovery period.

Finally, for a successful marathon taper keep these tips in mind as you’re formulating a plan. First, don’t try anything that’s “innovative” or “trendy” during your taper. Keep it simple by just reducing weekly training volume - with, of course, the inclusion of some higher intensity.

Second, see your taper plan through. Don’t waver, don’t second-guess, don’t stress out.

And third, NEVER chase that one “final” long run in your taper period. Believe in all the hard work you’ve already done…and remember the proverb about which straw it was that broke the camel’s back.

Good luck.