How To Do Your Marathon Taper Effectively + Our Complete Taper Plan

Wind down your mileage effectively so you get to the start line primed for a PR.

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The marathon taper period involves decreasing your training volume and intensity in the final weeks of training before a marathon to recover and maximize your energy and physical readiness to perform on race day.1Smyth, B., & Lawlor, A. (2021). Longer Disciplined Tapers Improve Marathon Performance for Recreational Runners. Frontiers in Sports and Active Living3. https://doi.org/10.3389/fspor.2021.735220

‌But, what should your marathon taper plan look like?

Whether you are running your first marathon, hoping to qualify for the Boston Marathon, or just looking to smash your marathon PR, we will show you how to taper for a marathon and give you our best marathon taper plan.

A person running down the road.

How Long Do You Taper Before A Marathon?

Most running coaches recommend that average recreational marathon runners do a three-week taper.2Fokkema, T., Damme, A. A. D. N., Fornerod, M. W. J., Vos, R., Bierma‐Zeinstra, S. M. A., & Middelkoop, M. (2020). Training for a (half‐)marathon: Training volume and longest endurance run related to performance and running injuries. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports30(9), 1692–1704. https://doi.org/10.1111/sms.13725

‌However, some experienced runners may do a two-week taper, especially if they are training through the marathon, meaning that it isn’t necessarily their main goal race of the season.

For example, some advanced runners might train for an ultra marathon and include a full marathon as a build-up to their ultra marathon race.

This would be a similar concept to marathon runners who have a time trial or want to work on their goal marathon pace with a half marathon race during their training plan build-up.

A two-week taper may be sufficient if you are training through the marathon or have not been running particularly high mileage over the previous weeks of training and are feeling great.

Some running coaches have most of their athletes do a two-week taper instead of a 3 week marathon taper schedule.

However, in my work with most first-time marathon runners and even advanced marathon runners, a three-week taper plan that is a little more gradual tends to feel better physically and mentally to help prepare you for the big day.3Haugen, T., Sandbakk, Ø., Seiler, S., & Tønnessen, E. (2022). The Training Characteristics of World-Class Distance Runners: An Integration of Scientific Literature and Results-Proven Practice. Sports Medicine – Open8(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40798-022-00438-7

A person running down the road.

‌I find many marathon runners start to feel anxious before race day.

If we do just a two-week taper, then our speed work, training volume, and training intensity have to get scaled back quite dramatically, particularly in the final week.

This can cause runners to feel more antsy and agitated because of the drastic change in their typical training.

In contrast, a three-week taper allows the decrease in training load to be more gradual so that you still feel like you are getting in a decent amount of training without psychologically worrying that you will lose your fitness level.

This is not to say that you can’t do a two-week marathon taper and arrive fresh and ready to race on race day.4Haugen, T., Sandbakk, Ø., Seiler, S., & Tønnessen, E. (2022). The Training Characteristics of World-Class Distance Runners: An Integration of Scientific Literature and Results-Proven Practice. Sports Medicine – Open8(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40798-022-00438-7

Most of the physiological adaptations from training take a minimum of 10 to 14 days to set in, so the training that you are doing in the final week and even the week before the race will not really contribute to your fitness level on race day.

Rather, in the lead-up to race day, you want to maintain the aerobic, neuromuscular, and other physiological adaptations you have built through your marathon training program build-up without inducing further fatigue by maintaining a high training load.

There is also a mental component to continuing to train and having some speed work and intensity, even in the final week of the marathon taper plan.

You want to feel fresh and sharp on race day morning, and if you take only rest days the entire final week before the race, you might feel physically sluggish, anxious, or “off your game.”

This is why running coaches typically include one final mini-speed workout 5 to 7 days out from the race, typically with lower volume but still hitting some faster paces.

I also recommend incorporating strides after your easy runs in the final week of training to keep your neuromuscular system feeling sharp and fast.

A scale.

Will I Gain Weight When I Taper For a Race?

Many runners are concerned they will gain weight over the two-week taper plan before race day.

If you do not change your eating habits and cut back on your training volume, you may gain some weight because you will burn fewer calories.

Depending on your body weight and goals, this may or may not be problematic. 

For some runners, maintaining body weight during a training cycle is actually quite difficult, so they welcome the relative reduction in caloric expenditure because it makes it easier to keep their weight up.

For most runners who are training for performance, I highly suggest not worrying about counting calories or grams of carbs during a marathon taper. 

Your body needs the extra energy, protein, and carbohydrates to repair damaged tissues and store glycogen for race day.5Naderi, A., Gobbi, N., Ali, A., Berjisian, E., Hamidvand, A., Forbes, S. C., Koozehchian, M. S., Karayigit, R., & Saunders, B. (2023). Carbohydrates and Endurance Exercise: A Narrative Review of a Food First Approach. Nutrients15(6), 1367. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu15061367

A person running down the road.

‌In fact, one of the primary purposes of a taper for a long-distance race is to ensure you have plenty of calories coming in that aren’t needed to fuel longer runs, so the carbs, protein, and micronutrients can go towards repairing tissues and stocking up glycogen.

However, if you are doing a longer taper and really have concerns about gaining weight, you can cut back on the number of calories you eat per day, particularly scaling back on the grams of carbs you eat.

This may occur naturally because you won’t need to fuel so intentionally before longer runs because the distances will be getting cut down during the taper, and you may have a natural reduction in appetite as your mileage decreases.

Also, note that you might see your weight increase on the scale, especially if you do carbo-loading. 

However, a lot of this weight increase is water weight (not fat) because the body stores 3 to 4 grams of water for every gram of glycogen stored.

Rest assured that it takes 3500 surplus calories to gain a pound of fat, so you aren’t going to be gaining a significant amount of weight even when you cut back your training volume as you taper for the race.

Racing a marathon isn’t the time to worry about your weight.

How Should I Adjust My Training Intensity During a Marathon Taper Period?

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:

A person jogging and smiling.

3 Weeks From Race Day

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 your 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.6MUJIKA, I., & PADILLA, S. (2003). Scientific Bases for Precompetition Tapering Strategies. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise35(7), 1182–1187. https://doi.org/10.1249/01.mss.0000074448.73931.11

‌The structure of your workouts does not need to change yet. Most studies suggest that it takes the body about ten days to make the physiological adaptations after a workout, so the training at this point can still lead to fitness gains for your marathon performance.

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) for your longest runs in your earlier weeks of training.

A person running on a track.

2 Weeks From Race Day

Here are tips for how your marathon taper should progress two weeks before your marathon:

Total Weekly Mileage: 

Decrease by 25-30 percent of your average weekly mileage during your peak weeks in the marathon training cycle.

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

You can take an extra rest day and swap an easy run for a cross-training workout as long as you’ve been doing that type of cross-training.

For example, I wouldn’t recommend suddenly going for a bike ride instead of a longer run if you haven’t been biking as a form of cross-training in your marathon training.

However, if you have been aqua jogging or using the elliptical, I would swap out a longer run for one of these cross-training workouts, particularly if you have been dealing with aches and pains from running.

Intensity

Your last full speed workout should be about 13 days from the race, typically on Monday or Tuesday of the week, two weeks from race day.

Particularly for beginners, this speed work should be longer intervals at goal marathon pace or half marathon rather than hills or VO2 max intervals

More advanced runners can do a high-intensity speed workout as long as they keep the total volume of the intervals low.

You can also do a tempo run about 10 days out from the big day, but keep the duration shorter than the tempo runs you have been doing during your peak build-up.

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

People running on the road.

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 in your build-up, reduce this long run to 10 miles at most. 

First time marathon runners might even want to drop to 8 miles.

Don’t change your training frequency during the first two weeks of the marathon taper schedule. 

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 distance of your runs.

The Week of the Marathon

The final week leading up to the big day of the race is where the major marathon taper takes place. 

At this point, any training you do won’t induce any fitness gains because most physiological adaptations take at least ten days to really take effect.

A person running down the road with snow in the background.

Total Weekly Mileage: 

Reduce your weekly mileage during race week to no more than 50-60% of your usual miles per week.

Take at least one extra rest day and consider swapping a regular easy training run with a cross-training workout.

Make sure to run a couple of miles the day before the race as an easy run, also known as a “shakeout run.“ 

I also recommend doing some short, fast strides or accelerations after the shakeout run the day before the race.

Intensity

You can do one fartlek run the Monday before the marathon, and then the only intensity work will be strides at the end of your easy runs.

Use your extra training time during your marathon taper plan to relax, stretch, use the foam roller, and plan the logistics for race day!

As you plan your logistics, check out our marathon checklist so you don’t forget a thing for your big race!

References

  • 1
    Smyth, B., & Lawlor, A. (2021). Longer Disciplined Tapers Improve Marathon Performance for Recreational Runners. Frontiers in Sports and Active Living3. https://doi.org/10.3389/fspor.2021.735220
  • 2
    Fokkema, T., Damme, A. A. D. N., Fornerod, M. W. J., Vos, R., Bierma‐Zeinstra, S. M. A., & Middelkoop, M. (2020). Training for a (half‐)marathon: Training volume and longest endurance run related to performance and running injuries. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports30(9), 1692–1704. https://doi.org/10.1111/sms.13725
  • 3
    Haugen, T., Sandbakk, Ø., Seiler, S., & Tønnessen, E. (2022). The Training Characteristics of World-Class Distance Runners: An Integration of Scientific Literature and Results-Proven Practice. Sports Medicine – Open8(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40798-022-00438-7
  • 4
    Haugen, T., Sandbakk, Ø., Seiler, S., & Tønnessen, E. (2022). The Training Characteristics of World-Class Distance Runners: An Integration of Scientific Literature and Results-Proven Practice. Sports Medicine – Open8(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40798-022-00438-7
  • 5
    Naderi, A., Gobbi, N., Ali, A., Berjisian, E., Hamidvand, A., Forbes, S. C., Koozehchian, M. S., Karayigit, R., & Saunders, B. (2023). Carbohydrates and Endurance Exercise: A Narrative Review of a Food First Approach. Nutrients15(6), 1367. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu15061367
  • 6
    MUJIKA, I., & PADILLA, S. (2003). Scientific Bases for Precompetition Tapering Strategies. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise35(7), 1182–1187. https://doi.org/10.1249/01.mss.0000074448.73931.11
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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