How to Taper Properly and Why it Matters

by Karl Gruber
No matter if you are an elite athlete, a veteran mid-pack runner or a raw beginner, learning how to taper during the final weeks and days of your training is extremely important. What does “taper” mean in regards to training? Tapering is a progressive decrease in your weekly running mileage, as well as overall exertion and effort. The taper period during your training generally happens over the last three weeks of your program. 
Why It Matters
When training for any sport, tapering properly (right up until a goal race or event) may be hard to accept because the mentality of a marathon runner, triathlete, power lifter, cross-country skier, etc. is usually one of all-out competitiveness. How many times have you been on a training run that is scheduled to be an “easy day” when you end up in a friendly but competitive “race” with one of your training partners? This defeats the purpose of the easy day of course, but an athlete’s competitive mentality almost always takes over. 
If you look at how a well-designed marathon training program is set-up, it is weeks and months of a long, slow progressive build-up of mileage combined with higher intensity workouts such as intervals, track workouts and shorter distance racing. However, if you continue this pattern right up to your marathon, there’s a good chance that you could end up bonking (a huge decrease in your performance and running ability) during your race. 
The goal is to get your cardiovascular and aerobic conditioning to a peak level come race day. In order to be at its peak, your body must have time to rest and recover from such a long and intense energy-zapping period of training. Perhaps the best way to look at this is to use an analogy. 
Those longs weeks of increasingly hard running is where you “put money in the bank,” and come race day, it’s all ready to be “withdrawn from your account.”  If you train hard every day until the day before your race, you will end up “withdrawing your money from the bank” too early with nothing left to “spend” on race day. 
Most marathon training programs call for your last long run — usually a 20-miler — three weekends prior to your goal race. You don’t stop running, but you gradually decrease your overall mileage, distance and effort during those final weeks. This progressive decrease allows your body to stay fit and ready, but also to gradually grow stronger, recover and store energy (money-in-the-bank) for race day.
How to Taper
Let’s take a look at the marathon program I’ve designed for the running club that I coach. The program is meant for beginners or intermediate marathoners, and looks something like this three weeks out from their race:
  • On Monday, I tell them to take the day off or cross-train.
  • On Tuesday, they run five miles at normal training pace.
  • On Wednesday, it’s a nine-mile run.
  • On Thursday, it’s another five miles.
  • On Friday, they get another day off or can cross-train.
  • On Saturday, they rest.
  • On Sunday, it’s their last long training run of 20 miles. 
Two weeks out is a continued decrease of their overall mileage, intensity and effort — until the last week before their marathon: Monday is a day off or cross-training, Tuesday is three miles at moderate pace, Wednesday is six easy miles, Thursday is three very easy miles, Friday and Saturday are both rest days, and then they race 26.2 miles on Sunday!
This is a smart way to taper in order to be well-rested and at your strongest yet still super fit and ready to race. When you are toeing the starting line on race morning, you should feel like a racehorse chafing at the bit, raring to go!
My club’s marathon training program is by no means special, but it is based on proven programs that I have used and studied throughout my marathon running career. While there are those exceptional runners who are able to train at their peak right up until their race, those runners are truly few and far between. What works for them generally will not work for the vast majority of runners who are more than likely juggling a full-time career, raising a family, etc.
So hammer out those miles during training to whip your body and mind to the peak of your abilities, but don’t forget to respect your body’s need to heal, recover and regenerate with tapering so it can give you its best effort come race day!

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