Marathon Tapering with Heidi Caldwell

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The VT City Marathon is coming up on May 27th! Craftsbury Running Camp director Heidi Caldwell, coming off an impressive run at Boston, shares her best tips on how to taper for a marathon.

Heidi smiling her way through a wet Boston

In theory, tapering sounds great. After months of powering through tough workouts and high mileage, it’s time to give the legs a break and take a breath. You get to run workouts designed to make you feel fast and fresh rather than push you to your limit. You get to feel what it’s like to have energy again rather than falling asleep half way through the work day. All good things, right?

In practice, tapering can be challenging and even, for some runners, daunting. The transition from clocking steady mileage to easing up on the legs can be off-putting, both physically and mentally. How do you know if you’re running too much or too little? How do you taper without losing fitness or feeling flat? Dropping your mileage and intensity too sharply can lead you to feel slow and lethargic, while not decreasing your training load enough means you might show up on race day tired. To keep from feeling flat, drop your mileage but keep some intensity in your week’s training plan. If you do a track workout every Tuesday, still do a track workout but lower the total mileage and intensity. It’s important to keep your legs moving but to not dig yourself into a hole.

For a marathon, the taper period typically begins three weeks out from race day, after your longest long run. The three-week timeframe allows for a gradual taper, steadily decreasing weekly mileage and intensity. Three weeks out, decrease your mileage to ~80% of your highest mileage week. Two weeks out, decrease to ~50%. In the final week of tapering, keep your runs short and take a complete rest day two days before the race. Remember: the goal of your tapering weeks is to minimize fatigue, not increase fitness.

Another point to keep in mind: it takes time for your body to adapt post-workouts. Although the number of days it takes for your body to feel the benefits of a specific workout depends on many factors (e.g. how much work you put in prior to and proceeding the workout), a good rule of thumb is it takes ten days for your body to fully adapt to the workout. In other words, you’re not going to gain race-day fitness by squeezing in extra hard workouts in the ten days leading up to the race. Tune-up workouts will help your body feel fresh and prepped, while high-mileage, high-intensity workouts will leave you tired and will not boost your fitness on race-day. Trust the months of training you’ve put in!

Finally, even though you’re running less, make sure you are fueling and sleeping well! Your body still needs to recover from the high mileage weeks in order to be energized on race day.

Key takeaways:

  • You won’t lose fitness tapering.
  • The goal of tapering is to minimize fatigue; rest is more important than work during this period.
  • Trust your training!
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