Surviving The Tapering Phase Of Marathon Training

By Becky Wade

October 4, 2017

“I love tapering,” said no marathoner ever.

A few months out, it sounds harmless enough: two to three weeks of reduced mileage, increased free time, and a hard-earned chance to rest and rebuild.

But then the taper hits, and it’s abrupt and it’s awkward. It throws you off balance and tempts you in all kinds of ways. It can even take the form of a little devil perched on your shoulder. What if you’re the outlier who actually does lose fitness in that short window? Remember that one time you ran an awesome race without tapering at all? Shouldn’t your legs feel springy by now?

I’m in the middle of my fifth marathon taper (about ten days out from Chicago), and questions like those arise with each one. The key is to expect them and reject them. Uncomfortable as it can be, the taper is the final stop on your way to a stellar marathon.

Here are my tips for surviving it.

Occupy yourself: With less running comes more time on your hands and a chance to do things you love that normally take a backseat to training. Embrace that! Some of my favorite taper activities are cooking and baking (while seated, when possible), messing around with my calligraphy pens and watercolors, reading more than usual, and organizing with an intensity that would make Marie Kondo beam.

…But not too much: Learning how to make bagels is one thing. Crafting over 80 intricate Christmas cards for friends around the world is another. I’m not sure why the latter sounded like a great project to begin the week of my debut marathon, but true to my nature, it resulted in some 4 a.m. wake-ups and several hours a day spent hunched over my kitchen table. I don’t think it had a negative impact on my race, but it certainly didn’t get me to the finish line any quicker. When choosing your race-week activities, enjoy yourself but curb your enthusiasm. And anything physical that’s not running in a relatively straight line is off limits.

Keep doing what you’ve been doing: If you’re not normally a vegetarian or religious foam roller, race week is not a good time to try it out. Sticking to your routine as much as you can—in terms of sleep and wake times, meals and snacks and some kind of daily structure—is the safest way to approach an event with enough variables of its own. At the end of a long season or build-up, my dad often reminds me of famed UT Football Coach Darrell Royal’s belief: “You dance with the one that brung ya.” I’m pretty sure he wasn’t talking about 26.2 miles of running, but for our sake, he might as well have been.

Don’t panic, and definitely don’t cram: Just because it was your style in college doesn’t mean cramming will work before a marathon. This is not the time to get greedy, crush workouts for the confidence boost, or squeeze in last-minute mileage. If anything, it’s best to be a hair undertrained than just a smidgeon overdone. Above all, trust your training and prioritize rest.

Envision success: Spend some time each day visualizing a great race. Reflect on workouts you nailed, long runs you smashed, and moments you overcame setbacks to get yourself back on track. Be honest with yourself and trust your coach about where you’re at, and set some realistic goals. I like to use a tiered system, with A, B, and C goals to cling to as the marathon unfolds (A = my best possible day, B = a very good day, C = a solid day). As long as you know what you generally want to accomplish in advance, you can adjust your goals when elements like weather and final start lists become more certain.

Congratulations to those who kicked off fall marathon season at Berlin and best wishes to those preparing for an upcoming race. This will be my last post before I take on a phenomenal field in the Chicago Marathon on October 8th. Thanks for joining me on my build-up!

Becky Wade

Native Texan, Rice University grad, Colorado transplant. Specializing in the 3K Steeplechase and Marathon. Author of “Run the World: My 3,500-Mile Journey Through Running Cultures Around the Globe,” which is available on Amazon and wherever else you get your books.