Perfecting the Marathon Taper

By Ryan Warrenburg, ZAP Fitness

In just a few days at the Chicago Marathon Joan Benoit Samuelson will attempt to break 3 hours at the age of 60, something no woman has ever done. It would be another amazing feat from the woman who has had a career full of amazing feats, most notably storming to the front 2 miles into the 1984 Olympic Marathon in Los Angeles and never looking back. She will forever be the first women’s gold medalist in Olympic marathon history, but it’s amazing how close she came to never making it to the start line. A mere 17 days before the Olympic Trials, a window where most athletes would begin their taper, Joan Benoit had to undergo arthroscopic surgery on an injured knee. Incredibly, she returned to running just a few days after the surgery, toed the line at the Olympic Trials, and won the race.

The conditions of Joan Benoit’s taper were extreme, but illustrates that the marathon taper can take many paths. And while there is concrete purpose behind the taper, especially when it comes to the marathon, the taper phase of training is as much art as it is science. Highly trained athletes like Joan Benoit can typically afford to taper a bit less than the rest of us due to their unusual tolerance and acclimation to high training loads. For example, just 4 days before the Olympic Trials Joan she ran a 17-mile long run to test her knee, a run that would be enough to tank most people’s race.

Three Week Taper

Assuming the marathon buildup has gone well, I would recommend viewing the final 3 weeks as a taper phase. The last big 20 + mile long run should be scheduled 3 weeks out from race day, with the exception being a situation like Joan Benoit’s where you’ve missed some time and haven’t got in the necessary number of long runs before the race. (Although the only reason you should attempt to run a marathon 17 days after surgery is to make the Olympic team). In that case the taper should be shorter with an 18-20 mile long run two weeks out from race day.

The overall mileage two weeks out from race week should be 10-20% less than the previous week, and most of that should come by shortening the long run two weeks out. The primary focus of this week is recovering properly from the big long run the weekend prior. This is a good week to skip your weekly workout and just run, or to do a very light one. A common workout I prescribe that week is 6-10 x 200-meter repeats at 5k pace with a 200-meter jog between each of them. This isn’t an overly taxing workout; the goal is to stretch the legs out a bit and turnover a little in the middle of the week with out stressing the body coming off the big long run. The long run that week, two weeks out, should be no more than 2 hours in duration.

Maximizing Muscle Glycogen

In addition to resting tired muscles, the science portion of the marathon taper is about maximizing your muscle glycogen stores. Your body can store a finite amount of glycogen in the muscles and you want all of it available on race day. Those stores should be full most of the time, but during marathon training they often get depleted and part of the taper is ensuring they are replenished. As we get within two weeks of the race this restoration and recovery takes high priority.

Final Fitness Boost

The week before the race is your last chance to get in a harder workout that will boost your fitness. If you are a seasoned marathoner the middle of this week, 10-12 days out from the race, is a good opportunity to include an interval workout. Otherwise a tempo effort fits perfectly and will give you one last hard effort before the race. The overall weekly volume should be 15-25% less than the previous week and the “long run” one week out should be no more than 70-80 minutes in length. Including some short, quicker running at the end of the long run, such as 8 x 30 seconds at 10k pace with 2 minutes and 30 seconds easy running between each, is a nice way to finish with a little bit of pep in your step.

Hay is in the Barn

It’s important to remember you can’t gain any more fitness the week of the race, so when in doubt, err on the side of rest and recovery. It’s also important to stick with your typical weekly routine, especially if training is going well. If you’re feeling fatigued this week pull back a bit more, but otherwise your mileage during the week (not including the marathon) should be 10-20% less than the previous week. Resting too much if your body is used to training can result in feeling stale come race day. If you generally run 5 or more days a week take an extra rest day this week, but if you run 3-4 days a week stick with that. In keeping with the rhythm of the week, do some running at marathon pace 4-5 days before the race. For example, run 3 x 1 mile with 3 minutes rest between each, nothing hard, just something to move your legs a little and feel race pace.

Carbo Loading?

Nutritionally, if you typically eat a well balanced diet carbohydrate loading isn’t necessary, but adding a few more carbs to your diet the final 3-4 days before the race isn’t going to hurt anything. As far as the final two days of training, if you typically run 5 days or more per week then you should plan on doing an easy 2-3 mile shakeout run the day before the race. And if you are flying or driving a long distance to the race be sure to do that run after your travel.

Above all else, when it comes to the last few weeks before the race, trust your training. It’s common to over analyze every step of every run during the taper, but agonizing over fabricated problems is not helpful. You may not make the Olympic team 17 days after knee surgery, but perfection is an illusion, and if you’ve put the training in that will win the day.

*This Article Originally Appeared in the October 2017 Issue of Running Journal