What’s a good middle ground for a marathon training taper?

After today’s 20 miler, I’m officially tapering from here to Chicago.

That’s probably not a big deal to most experienced marathon runners, who were traditionally taught to do their longest run three weeks out from their goal race, and then taper from there.

But Jonathan Savage has found from various research that 3 weeks may actually be too long. The Hanson Brothers seem to back this up in their methodology, with a 2 week taper that’s so light that many muse that the Hanson Method doesn’t have a taper at all.

Of course, many also claim that a 20 miler is unnecessary, yet even knowing the arguments here I am beating my legs into the ground over 4 hours on a Saturday morning, logic be damned.

Still, the logic behind a shorter taper is sound.

  • You may end up peaking too early and losing fitness from the extended draw-down in volume and intensity during that final 3 weeks of training.
  • You want to peak at a time where you get to the start line with the maximal benefit from that training.

The Hansons’ program specifically has you do your last quality workout 10 days out because they posit you see benefits from a key workout after 10 days, and to push yourself anytime in the last 9 days before the goal race needlessly damages and tires you out ahead of your goal race.

That said, for many the 3 week taper seems to work anyway in part because:

  • Remember the old adage that it’s better to get to the start line undertrained than overtrained. It just works out well for most that they get to the line rested, even having lost some fitness.
  • A marathon is such a brutal experience anyway that most don’t notice during the race any fitness they may have incidentally lost from peaking too early.

Does that mean a 3 week taper is the best approach before a marathon? Possibly not.

Still, some say it’s akin to debating what kind of protein shake you’re gonna put in the bottle for the end of your upcoming workout. The workout is ultimately the more important thing, while the contents of your bottle are relatively trivial.

Likewise, debating which day to begin your taper doesn’t seem nearly as important as how you’ve trained overall the first 15-29 weeks, how consistently you’ve run, what kind of training you’ve done, how you’ve recovered, etc.

Tapering perfectly isn’t going to substantially improve a subpar training cycle. And while there is some chance a poorly done taper could damage your effort on race day, it’s not necessarily going to undo a very good training cycle (… unless your actions get you injured or sick).


However, especially after a variety of unfortunate unforeseen setbacks derailed my effort at Vancouver this May, I would like to give myself the best possible opportunity to have a good experience at the Chicago Marathon. So I don’t terribly mind putting some effort into tapering well.

I decided to meet all this conflicting advice in the middle with the following general plan:

Week ending September 16 (this one):

  • Peak mileage (53 miles).
  • High intensity (2 tempo/speed workouts, plus 2 strength training sessions).
  • Peak long run (20 miles).
  • Eat a ton of protein rich food.

Week ending September 23:

  • Slightly lower but still fairly high mileage (42-45 miles).
  • Peak intensity (3 tempo/speed workouts, 2 strength training sessions).
  • Sizable but not peak long run (13-16 miles, 2.5 hours max).
  • Eat another ton of protein rich food.

Week Ending September 30:

  • Substantial draw down of mileage (25-30 miles)
  • Draw down of intensity (only one strength training session, plus caving to the Hansons’ recommendation and doing the last tempo workout 10 days out).
  • Even shorter long run to stay honest (10-13 miles, 2.5 hours max).
  • Don’t eat a ton of protein rich food but maybe 0.75 tons.

Marathon Week, ending October 7:

  • Nothing but easier, shorter runs. Make sure they’re still regularish runs (3-5 miles).
  • Include either some brief tempo segments or do the runs at a moderate intensity.
  • The key to this week is to maintain running chops and not lose substantial fitness.
  • Runs done the final 3 days will not exceed 5 miles, and will likely be more like 2-4.
  • And, of course, run the actual marathon that Sunday.

The idea:

  • I think everyone across the board has the same idea when it comes to overall volume. You want to peak your weekly mileage about 3 weeks out (and most people focus on the long run or the quality workouts, without focusing on the volume of all the runs done during the week) because after that you want your body’s now accelerated ability to handle and recover from that level of pounding… to catch up at an accelerated scale, against less overall volume.
  • You do still want to get in strength training, speed sessions, tempo work, etc., because your body is still netting benefits from this work, and to eliminate or reduce it would lead to a dulling of the anaerobic/moderate caliber fitness you have developed during the last few months. I have seen for myself a performance dropoff when I cut down on intensity for a few weeks, whether or not I cut down on volume.
  • I think, along with getting scared of an upcoming race when they’ve neglected training, people training for a marathon get scared of overtraining in the final taper weeks, and thus they go overboard on the taper: Too many days off, lots of too-short runs, frequently cutting off workouts early. That as much as anything is what leads to a preliminary loss of fitness ahead of any race, let alone a marathon. I like the idea of still running everyday if you’ve already been doing it for months… just at somewhat less distance while still at enough distance to be more than a recovery run, and like Savage recommends making sure to maintain intensity as you draw down mileage and to not cut that out too soon.
  • That said, I do think the Hansons have the right idea in cutting all that out at 10 days out, and focusing just on easy running, since at that point you have done all you can do to get ready. Just keep your chops over the final 10 days, allow your body to catch up to all that training, and get to the start line ready to go.
  • If anything, the one new stimulus I’d add and practice is working on in-race fueling. One mistake I think I made in previous training cycles is to start practicing fueling during runs way too soon, and not giving myself the chance to do long runs with no water or nutrition to experience full depletion. This time around, I’ve kept in-run fueling to a minimum: Today’s 20 was probably the first time this cycle I brought any nutrition with me (two Larabars and water), and on half my long runs I didn’t bring any water. Now, with the volume and intensity having been ingrained, I can practice here and there with taking water, Gatorade, chews or whatever else every 1.5 miles or so, instead of trying that at the same time as trying to develo aerobic fitness or hit tempo. I have the space to find something that suits a rhythm.

As always, this is just one view, and I’m not saying any of this is the perfect answer to tapering. But I do think this approach may work better than the alternatives.

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One thought on “What’s a good middle ground for a marathon training taper?

  1. […] Every single day since 7/30/18 I’ve gone out for a run of at least one mile (my personal minimum for that day’s running to count). No run has been shorter than 1.44 miles, and my average run length has been 5.76 miles. Obviously the longest run was over 20 miles. […]

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