Taper Training For Marathons

I attended a high school that was known for its swimmers. They were the best in the country, and some of them competed in the Olympics. Before championship meets, you could overhear amusing discussions in the hallways about “shaving down” and “tapering” in an attempt to swim faster. As a member of the cross country and track teams, I was also interested in getting faster. So I couldn’t help but eavesdrop. “What were these odd-sounding things,” I wondered. “Could they work for me, too? Do swimmers have a secret?”

The idea of progressively reducing, or tapering, the training load has been a long tradition among swimmers, the most often-studied athletes in regard to tapering. While it’s not necessary to shave all of your body hair to run faster, marathon runners can benefit from tapering, which enables your body recover, adapt, and overcompensate to the training you’ve done so you’re prepared to run your best race.

There are a number of physiological changes that occur during the taper. Among the most prominent are changes in the characteristics of the blood, including increases in red blood cell volume, total blood volume, and reticulocytes (immature red blood cells), and improvements in the health of red blood cells. These hematological changes reflect a positive balance between hemolyis (the degradation of red blood cells) and erythropoiesis (the production of red blood cells), leading to a greater oxygen carrying capability and, often, an improved performance.

Tapering also increases muscle glycogen content (giving you more fuel), aerobic enzyme activity (allowing for greater aerobic metabolism), and muscular strength and power, and can increase maximum oxygen consumption (VO2max). A decreased level of creatine kinase in the blood (an indirect indicator of muscle damage), which reflects an increased recovery, has also been consistently found following a taper.

The goal of tapering is to recover from prior training without compromising your previous training adaptations. In other words, you want to decrease fatigue without losing fitness. Here’s how to taper to see better results at your next marathon.

Increase your training volume immediately prior to the taper. Spend a few weeks at this higher volume. The more you run before the taper, the more you benefit from the taper. For example, if you run 60 miles per week before you taper, you reap a greater benefit from your taper than if you run 30 miles per week before tapering. It’s hard to taper down something that hasn’t been built up. Expect a much bigger difference in how your legs feel at the starting line when dropping weekly mileage from 60 to 20 compared to dropping mileage from 30 to 20.
Reduce your weekly mileage quickly and exponentially for 2 to 4 weeks. Cut mileage 30 percent for the first week, 50 percent for the second week, and 65 percent for the week of the marathon (not counting the marathon itself).
Keep the intensity high with interval training. A large reduction in volume accompanied by an increase or maintenance in intensity improves training-induced adaptations. But don’t introduce intense workouts during the taper that you haven’t already done prior to the taper, since that will cause fatigue, which is a big no-no during the taper.
Decrease training intensity slightly during the second week of the taper.
During the week of the marathon, include one interval workout early in the week, cutting back on the pre-taper number of reps.
During the week of the marathon, include a daily reduction in volume over the last few days that mirrors the pattern of the weekly reduction.
Over the final 1 to 2 weeks before the marathon, increase the percentage of calories from carbohydrates to 70%. Women need to also consume more total calories to get the same carbo-loading effect as men.