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The Marathon Taper: How To Taper Correctly For Your Next Marathon

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The marathon taper can be somewhat polarizing among marathon runners: some look forward to the relative let up in the intensity and volume of training—seeing it somewhat like a well-earned vacation—whereas other marathoners detest it and fear its arrival like an impending injury.

It can be difficult for runners to cut back when their bodies and brains are so accustomed to releasing energy through daily runs and the feel-good mood boost you get from the production of natural endocannabinoids and endorphins from running. 

However, it’s an important part of resting up before race day, so you have a great race. But what does a proper marathon taper entail? Keep reading to find out!

We will cover: 

  • Why Do I Feel So Tired and Sore During a Marathon Taper?
  • How To Taper Correctly For Your Next Marathon

Let’s get started!

Two people running over a bridge in the city.

Why Do I Feel So Tired and Sore During a Marathon Taper?

In many ways, you can get withdrawal from running during the marathon taper, which can lead to agitation, anxiety, irritability, and mood instability.

Some runners even experience physical niggles, pain, and muscle aches during the marathon taper that seem to crop up out of nowhere. This could be extremely unsettling so close to race day and is often quite bewildering for first-time marathoners who have never experienced tapering for a marathon.

After all, doesn’t it seem counterintuitive that your body might feel fine while you are putting in more miles, doing more speed workouts, and having a higher training volume overall than when you pair way back during a marathon taper? 

Why, all of a sudden, does it seem like your knee feels a little wonky or your quads feel tight? Why do you seemingly feel winded when walking up the stairs or so tired that you can’t fathom running five or 6 miles, let alone 26.2?

A person running in the rain down a road.

Although there isn’t necessarily any scientific evidence to substantiate the increase in physical aches and fatigue that many runners experience during the marathon taper, in some ways, it can perhaps be equated to the sudden fatigue you might feel when you finally get to take a vacation or during the first few days of summer break for teachers. 

Your body and brain get into a go, go, go pattern and mindset when you have to be “on“ during training or work (in this analogy), and as soon as you have a little bit of a relative pause in the extent to which you need to exert yourself, your body and brain can finally send the message: I am exhausted!

The good news is that not only is this normal and common among many marathon runners, who ultimately go on to smash their PR and have a fantastic race, but it’s also sort of the entire purpose of tapering for a marathon.

Much like we all need a vacation from work or whatever typically keeps us busy during our everyday lives, our bodies need a quick little “vacation” before the big race to fully recover and get ready for optimal race day performance in the marathon.

Even though you might feel unduly sore and tired, if not downright achy and lethargic, during your marathon taper, your body will know what to do on race day. All of the little niggles and fatigue will melt away. 

A person running over a bridge.

Whether it is attributable to anxiety and pre-race jitters, or a delayed physical manifestation of the hard workouts you have been doing, the key thing to keep in mind is if your body is not feeling well during your marathon taper, it is almost never indicative of a new injury or impending illness, sudden case of iron deficiency anemia, etc.

Do your best to not put too much stock into every little sensation you might feel in your body that seems out of the ordinary. Stay relaxed, stay confident in all of the training and preparation you have done for your marathon, and stay positive.

Although it is totally reasonable and common to feel anxious as race day approaches and you are tapering for the marathon, you need to call upon the mental discipline, determination, and positive mental attitude you have developed through the hundreds of miles you have put in during your marathon training plan to keep your mindset healthy and positive.

Try to shut out any negative mind chatter that is trying to incite self-doubt and call into question your readiness and ability to have a fantastic marathon race.

How To Taper Correctly For Your Next Marathon

So, what should the marathon taper entail from a practical standpoint?

The marathon taper involves decreasing your mileage, intensity, and long run distance at different rates as the race approaches in order to start easing up on your total training volume to rest up from training and maximize your energy and physical readiness to perform on race day.

A full marathon taper begins about three weeks out from the race.

Here are some step-by-step guidelines for how to taper for a marathon:

The sole of a purple running shoe.

3 Weeks From Race Day

Here are the guidelines for how your marathon taper should begin three weeks before your marathon:

Total Weekly Mileage: 

Decrease by 10-15 percent of your peak or average weekly mileage during your training plan.

For example, if you’ve been averaging 50 miles per week (80 km), step down by 5-7 miles (8-12 km) for the week to 43-45 miles (68-72 km).

The easiest way to do this is to knock a couple of miles off your recovery runs and long run (see below).

Intensity

Although you will begin to decrease your intensity later on in the marathon taper as the race gets closer, three weeks out, maintain the same intensity you’ve been doing for all your workouts and training runs.

The structure of your workouts does not need to change yet. Most studies suggest that it takes the body about 10 days to make the physiological adaptations after a workout, so the work you’re putting in this week is absolutely still “money in the bank” for your marathon performance.

Two people running intensely on the road.

Long Run Volume

Cut your long run mileage by about 10-20%. 

So, for example, if you hit 20 miles as your longest long run, a long run of 16-18 miles is a good target, depending on how you feel and your experience level.

Another good guideline is to cap your long run to 2.5 hours (if you’ve been running closer to 3+ hours).

2 Weeks From Race Day

Here are the guidelines for how your marathon taper should begin two weeks before your marathon:

Total Weekly Mileage: 

Decrease by 25-30 percent of your peak or average weekly mileage during your training plan.

For example, if you’ve been averaging 50 miles per week (80 km), step down by 12-15 miles (20-24 km) for the week to 35-38 miles (56-60 km).

People running on the road.

Intensity

Your last hard workout should be about 13 days out from the race, so on the Monday or Tuesday of the week, two weeks out from the race.

This should be a marathon-specific workout (pace work/tempo run), not VO2 max intervals, hills, sprints, etc.

Reduce the volume by about 30-40%, so if your tempo runs have been 10 miles, just do 6-7 at your goal marathon pace.

Long Run Volume

Cut your long run mileage to about half of your longest long run.

So, for example, if you hit 20 miles as your longest long run, run just 10 miles. If you’re a beginner, you might even want to drop to 8 miles.

Keep your frequency the same during the first two weeks of the taper. So, if you have been running five days a week during your marathon training plan, keep running 5 days a week, but just shorten the length of your runs.

A person running surrounded by massive trees.

The Week of the Marathon

Here is where the major marathon taper takes place. At this point, any training you do won’t make improvements in your fitness because physiological adaptations take about 10 days to really take effect.

Total Weekly Mileage: 

Your weekly mileage should be about 50-60% of your usual mileage at most. Take at least one extra rest day. Run a couple of miles the day before the race.

Intensity

You can do one fartlek run the Monday before the marathon and then keep your intensity by way of fast strides at the end of your easy runs.

Use your extra training time to relax, stretch, use the foam roller, and get ready for race day!

Now that you know how to taper correctly for a marathon, what about all of the rest of the training? If you are looking for a plan to follow, we have our very own marathon training plans for every experience level. Check them out in our marathon training plan database!

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Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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