Why tapering is important day before race day

If you look at a standard marathon training plan, you’ll notice that in the final 2 to 3 weeks before the race, the recommended distances and intensity of running drops off significantly. This period is called ‘tapering’, and it is about winding down and letting your body re-energise before the endurance of the marathon itself. Tapering in marathon training is a crucial part of the training process and something you should not overlook or dismiss.

So, what is tapering, why is it so important, and how should you build it into your marathon training plan?

What is tapering?

Tapering in marathon training typically involves significantly reducing the intensity and distance you run in the final two to three weeks of training. The standard marathon training plan will last between 16 and 20 weeks. The tapering period happens in the final few weeks of the plan.

In a standard marathon training plan, you typically complete one long run each week – building up incrementally to around 20 miles towards the end of training, sometimes a little more, sometimes a little less. After that final long run, the tapering period begins.

What is the purpose in tapering for marathon training?

Any smart runner will taper down in the final weeks before the marathon. Here are some of the main reasons you should taper:

  1. To help you re-energise before race day

    Marathon training can take a big toll on your body, sapping your energy reserves. By cutting down the amount of running you do in the final few weeks before the race, you’ll feel re-energised and ready to take on those 26.2 miles.

  2. You won’t see any benefits from further training

    Marathon training is all about getting yourself fitter and boosting your stamina. You’ll also produce more red blood cells thanks to all that extra training you’re doing. However, once you’ve built up your fitness to a certain level, there’s not a huge amount more you can do, practically, to enhance your fitness levels in the final three weeks of training. At the same time, your fitness levels aren’t going to immediately decline if you ease off the training, so feel good about giving yourself a break!

  3. Your muscles will be depleted of carbohydrates

    Your muscles store significant amounts of carbohydrates. However, since you will be doing many long runs during training, these stores will begin to deplete over time. Tapering in marathon training allows you to build those carbohydrate levels back up to capacity, meaning you’ll have more energy to draw on during the race itself.

  4. To repair muscle damage

    With the hundreds of miles you’ll have covered over the course of your training, it’s inevitable that your muscles are going to experience some wear and tear. Again, by cutting back on the amount of running you do – plus adding in extra rest days – your body has more time to repair any damage, making you stronger

  5. To help avoid fatigue

    The feeling of fatigue can really sap your body of the necessary strength – and your mental motivation – to keep on running and cross the finishing line. Tapering, and the additional rest your body will get, is essential for avoiding this damaging feeling


How to taper for marathon training

Everyone’s approach to tapering is different – some runners find two weeks is just right, while others value three weeks, or perhaps even more. Tapering isn’t about stopping running completely. Rather, it’s about doing shorter, less intense training sessions, which gives you more time to rest and recover. The fundamentals are the same in every case:

  • The day after your final long training run (of around 20 miles), begin tapering
  • After this point, your longest weekly run should be no longer than 12–13 miles
  • Cut down your weekly mileage by around 25%
  • Add one extra day of rest into your weekly programme
  • Gradually reduce the amount of exercise you do over the tapering period
  • Continue to follow your eating plan – don’t eat any more or less than what you’ve been consuming so far

Besides these steps, the tapering period is also a good time to consider adding some stretching and recuperation into your preparation. Perhaps attend a yoga or Pilates class at your gym, or consider paying for a professional sports massage to work out any niggles or knots. If you notice your body is starting to feel sluggish during your tapering period, marginally up the intensity of your exercise in your next session – this will often be enough to restore your energy levels.

Tapering for a marathon is crucial – don’t forget it

While it might be tempting to keep on pushing your fitness levels up prior to race day, this approach ultimately does you more harm than good. Tapering helps to reduce the risk of injury and discomfort during the final race. That means you’ll feel more confident in your run and ready to take on everything the marathon throws at you.