"Any idiot can train himself into the ground; the trick is working in training to get gradually stronger." - Keith Brantly, US distance runner and Olympian
And you never need to be stronger than on the day of your A-race. The day you’ve spent the past 16 weeks training meticulously for… maybe even the past 365 days.
The spend and save analogy commonly used in endurance sports is simple: when you’re training, you’re saving, and when you’re racing, you’re spending. A marathon is a huge purchase - to give one all you can is like putting a down payment on a house or buying a brand new car outright.
Such a mammoth spend of physical resources must be funded appropriately. A good taper ensures there is no shortfall.
Why am I tapering for my marathon?
Any runner who has spent more than half a year trying to bring their racing times down knows that if you go beating the brakes off in every run that sooner or later you’ll disintegrate into a self-pitying mess of overuse injuries and psychological burnout. You keep your easy runs easy, and sprinkle in one or two harder sessions a week - you give your body the consistency and right dosage of intensity to improve over time.
So those intervals and tempo runs you’ve been sprinkling in around your easy base miles… they’ve worked wonders for your running economy and made you stronger and faster, but they cost your body recovery time and they risk injury.
And the additional time you’ve spent banking those unglamorous zone two miles… you’ve developed a hell of an aerobic base, but all that time on feet and squeezing those extra runs in is keeping you on the knife edge between physical development and exhaustion.
In the days immediately before race day, the risks of performing these higher intensity sessions start to outweigh the rewards, and any benefits of high volume, low intensity work that you can use will already be in the bank.
When shall I start my marathon taper?
You cannot cram at the last minute for a marathon. (I’ve tried.) You cannot cram at the last minute for a half marathon either. (I’ve tried that too.)
The common and rock solid advice is to look at your race date and work backwards. Plan the taper and stick to it. Don’t leave your best marathon performance in a panic-induced last-minute progression run a week before your race.
Exactly when your taper should start depends on your experience level, your unique physiology, your own running journey, and how your training has been going.
If you’re a very experienced runner and you’ve managed to stick to a significantly higher training volume and better structure than you have previously, it might be wise to start tapering two weeks (maybe even three) before your goal race, as you will probably be in quite a fatigued state and benefit from that extra rest.
If you’re a newer runner, possibly running your first half or full marathon, or if work and life have got in the way and you’re not quite where you wanted to be, you might benefit from having a shorter taper, possibly as short as eight to 10 days, as you won’t be in quite as fatigued a state.
So how do I taper for the marathon?
To taper something is to gradually thin it out near its end. Well, your training is - with regards to your race - at an end. The hard work is done, so it’s time to dial it back and recuperate for the big dance.
This doesn’t mean we just stop running and chill out for a week or two. We need to keep the engine ticking over, we need to maintain fitness, so while a lot of experienced runners from club level to elites will have varying tapering tactics, the broad strokes are to cut back on the volume and to cut out the intensity.
Three months into a training plan you’re not going to see the benefits of a hard six-by one mile interval session two weeks later, so it has no business in your taper.
Curbing your volume will also allow your body to recover more and be fresher for race day. Make the mileage reduction gradual too - for example, if you planned a two week taper, you might cut down your volume by 20 per cent the first week, and another 10 per cent the next, with your lowest mileage days being the three before race day.
What if I get my taper wrong?
Tapering is a skill. Learn from the bad ones to perfect the next one.
Sometimes, everything will go to plan and you will run your best race, but they’re easy to mess up. Stress from work and life at inconvenient times, wanting to test how a niggle holds up to a burst of speed, misjudging how hard you’ve been training… good tapering is easier written down than acted out. Getting the formula right for you will be a process.
Won’t I lose fitness during my taper?
You might be suffering from a nonsense condition called “maranoia” or “taper madness” which, if encouraged, will undo all your hard work and tank your marathon.
Just remember that running 26.2 miles to the best of your physical abilities is a huge feat of endurance and mental resilience, whether it’s your first or your 100th.
Respect the distance, and give your body the best conditions to achieve your goals.
Next up? Check out our marathon day checklist for 26 tips – one per mile – to help you finish your race in the best way possible on the day.