You’ve trained all summer pounding the pavement in hot, humid temperatures. You’ve done rounds of strength training, incorporated cross training, and foam-rolled your sore muscles. You are 3-4 weeks out from your marathon and you have reached one of the most important parts of training – the taper.
Tapering is defined as the reduction of exercise before a competition. For marathoners, this starts about three weeks before race day, and after your last long run of about 20 miles. During the taper, weekly mileage is radically reduced in order to allow the body to rest and recover before a prolonged race with extreme effort. At this point in training, there is not much you can do to improve endurance or performance, but there is still plenty of time to overdo it and risk injury.
The taper is a very difficult time for most runners, as “rest” is not a word they are used to. Moreover, it’s natural to feel tired and sluggish because your body is working hard to replenish. During this time period your muscle glycogen, hormones, antioxidants and enzymes all return to normal levels allowing the muscle damage from a long training season to repair. It has been shown that a taper period can improve marathon performance by increasing red blood cell count and VO2 max, which allows the body to take in and carry more oxygen to the working muscles during your 26.2 mile race. A proper taper also offers a mental reprieve from the rigors of four months of workouts.
The main goal of the three weeks of reduced mileage is to decrease accumulated fatigue, not to gain fitness or speed. Therefore, to have a successful taper runners should use the time to gently stretch or take a favorite yoga class. It is important that runners do not substitute any other cardio or high intensity fitness class for lack of running, as a decrease in running is the whole point!
Other tips for a proper taper include maintaining hydration and nutrition. Now is not the time to try new foods or drinks- stick with what you know so that it is easy to digest. Also make sure to get plenty of rest so that your body can use the energy to heal any nagging muscle aches or other small training injuries. Lastly, try to enjoy this time. The hard work is over and now the fun begins. So go pick out your race outfit, re-lace your shoes, and get ready to run your marathon!
Lauren Alix is a Doctor of Physical Therapy and Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist at the Hospital for Special Surgery Rehabilitation Department. She has run two marathons and numerous other road races, and enjoys helping runners become better at their sport through running analysis, training, and rehabilitation when needed. Lauren is passionate about injury prevention in athletes, and specializes in treating orthopedic injuries.
Pamela Geisel, MS, CSCS is a certified strength and conditioning specialist at Hospital for Special Surgery’s James M. Benson Sports Rehabilitation Center and Tisch Sports Performance Center. She graduated with honors from Towson University with a bachelor’s in exercise science and received her master’s in exercise physiology from Adelphi University. She has been in the fitness field since 2007 and has a special interest in using strength training to maximize performance and reduce injury for runners. Geisel is a long distance runner and has completed four marathons, more than a dozen half-marathons, and many 5K and 10K races