Tapering: the Eighth Training Type

Wed, 10 Oct. 2012 - 1:32 a.m. MT
Credit: ARA Staff - American Running Association

In the last issue we looked at the seven training-run types to get you ready for a marathon. Marathoners might want to consider tapering as the eighth of these types; during a well-executed taper, exertion, and not simply mileage, changes. Yet many runners, whether veteran or novice, ignore this fact and consequently go to the starting line compromised. The problem is a particularly thorny one for its subtlety: an improper taper often fails to result in obvious, debilitating injury—but could we have fared better on race day?

The question can haunt, but U.S. Olympian and exercise physiologist Pete Pfitzinger once again provides his unique insight, experience, and lifetime of research to help us feel our fittest and freshest as we hurtle toward the starting line, in hopes of a personal best. What does an appropriate marathon taper look like?

A proper marathon taper takes three weeks. During this window, you should have far more easy days than hard ones—indeed, many more easy days than you had per week during your regular training. Simply pulling back mileage to a certain percentage of your regular training volume is not enough. Tapering, properly executed, achieves several important goals; short-change the shift in exertion, and short-change one or more of those goals.

Remember, during your taper you’re cutting back your training so that your body can rebuild to peak strength. Tapering allows your muscles to repair the micro-damage of intervals, your energy systems to store up glycogen, your body to overcome the chronic dehydration of hard training, and that last bit of tendonitis in your knee or ankle or hip to finally go away. 

Just like every fourth week of your training was your recovery week, during which you pulled back the mileage by up to 20%, avoided speedwork, and deployed a less intense version of the tempo run, so it is with the runs in your three-week taper. Use these two guidelines to design your taper: 1) a hard day should be followed by two easy days; and 2) both the hard days and the easy days should decrease in volume as you get closer to the race. 

The taper should be preceded by your last long run. Think of this 22-miler three weeks out as graduation day. That is when the hard work is over, and it’s time to shift gears, focusing mentally, physically, and emotionally on the marathon.














5-Mile Tempo 


15-17 Miles 




VO2max Session 



11-13 Miles 



Dress Rehearsal 






Marathon Taper Schedule 

Week 1: 

During week 1 of the taper, you should run about 80% of your normal training volume. The first week of the taper starts with 2 easy days to recover from your last long run. This means if you've been running 5 days a week for a total of 40 miles, you should take 1 day off, and run 3 to 5 miles on the other easy day. 

Wednesday is a “turnover” workout, which has everything to do with your running form. This workout may not make you into poetry in motion, but it will help you run more smoothly. First, warm up by running 20 minutes easily, finishing at a track or athletic field. Then stretch gently and you're ready to start. The workout consists of 10 to 15 controlled sprints of about 100 meters each, with a 100-meter jog in between. Run in an outside lane and sprint the straight-aways, jogging the turns. Accelerate almost to full speed, and hold it to the finish. The secret is to run fast, yet relaxed. 

Follow the sprints with another 20 minutes of easy running. This workout will help eliminate sloppy form, such as "sitting in the bucket" that can come with too much long, slow running. 

Thursday is an easy day, just like Monday and Tuesday. Friday is a 5-mile tempo run, or tune-up race. Warm up for 20 minutes, then run at faster than marathon pace but slower than 10K pace for 5 miles. Your 10 mile race pace should be about right. This combination of speed and distance will improve your body's ability to run hard without accumulating lactic acid

Saturday is another easy day. Sunday, two weeks until the marathon: This is a medium-long run that, if you've been training less than 60 miles per week, should be about 15 miles. This run helps keep your confidence in your endurance and also helps maintain physiological adaptations such as increased blood volume. 

Week 2: 

During week 2 of the taper, you should run about 60% of your normal training volume. Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday are easy days. You may want to take one of these days off, and just go for a walk or a swim. 

Thursday is a long interval workout designed to maintain your VO2max. Your VO2max session should consist of repetitions of 600 to 1,200 meters at between 3K and 5K race pace, for a total of about 3 miles of intervals. Running your intervals faster will just wear you out. If you race 5K in 22 minutes (about 7 minutes per mile), an effective VO2max workout would consist of 6 repetitions of 800 meters in 3:20 to 3:25. 

Friday and Saturday are easy days, just like Tuesday and Wednesday. Once again, depending on your typical mileage you may want to take one of these days off. 

Sunday, one week until the marathon, calls for an 11-to 13-mile run. This is the last bit of distance work before the marathon, and is designed to remind both your body and mind that you are a well-trained distance-running machine. By now, you will be starting to feel smooth and powerful. 

Week 3: 

You should run about 1/3 of your normal weekly training volume in the 6 days leading up to the race. For example, if you normally run 60 miles per week during your marathon preparation, you would run 20 miles between Monday and Saturday before the marathon. 

During week 3, try to run at approximately the same time of day as the marathon. The human body likes routine, and all its systems become programmed to run at your normal training time. By training at the same time of day as the marathon, you can help prepare your digestive system, your energy systems, and even your mental energy to be at peak efficiency for the race. 

Monday and Tuesday are easy days or rest days. It is a good idea to run on one of these days to keep your muscles loose and your mind focused. Wednesday is a secret dress rehearsal for the marathon. Put on your racing gear, shoes and all. Warm-up for 10 to 15 minutes, and then run just 2 or 3 miles at marathon race pace, and cool down for another 10 to 15 minutes. This run will "shake the cobwebs loose" both mentally and physically.

Thursday, Friday, and Saturday are the final frontier. All that stands between you and marathon success at this point is your own impatience. These should be easy days, with one rest day for all but the high-mileage crowd. I recommend running the day before the marathon, if only a mile or two. This final run has more of a mental than a physical benefit.

It’s also important during these last three days to increase your complex carbohydrate intake and reduce your fat intake. The traditional sources of carbohydrates are rice, pasta, and bread. Many of the world's best marathoners eat rice before the race because it provides plenty of carbohydrates and is easy to digest. 

Tapering is the one time when working harder is counterproductive to performance. By giving you extra reserves, a well-executed taper will push the Wall out past the finish line. You may not appreciate it until the last four miles, but this most overlooked aspect of training, when executed correctly, can work wonders.


Adapted from The Pfitzinger Lab Report, “Tapering for a Marathon” by Pete Pfitzinger, MS,  http://www.pfitzinger.com/labreports/marathontaper.shtml


Human Kinetics, “Marathon Training: How to Optimize Your Training Program to Reach Your Potential” by Pete Pfitzinger, webinar, Jan 18, 2012, http://www.humankinetics.com/hk-webinars/hk-webinars/archived-webinar-marathon-training-how-to-optimize-your-training-program-to-reach-your-potential-

(RUNNING & FITNEWS® May / June 2012 • Volume 30, Number 3)

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