Two-Week Marathon Taper – Thoughts and Reflection

Posted: November 11, 2011 in Training
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My approach to training for the NYC Marathon was very similar to my ramp up to Austin this past February.  I felt as if the balance of endurance training delivered through longer runs on Wednesdays and true long runs each Sunday with speed work through racing and hill repeats struck the proper balance.

I worked on varying my pace on Tempo runs and recovery runs kept my legs working hard but relatively “fresh” for my key workouts.

The one change I felt was necessary however was with respect to the marathon taper period.  Traditionally I had followed the generally accepted principle that the taper period should last 3 weeks from the final long (20+ mile) run leading up to race day.

Each week during the taper the total weekly mileage is cut down from 100% of your maximum mileage the week of your final long run down to 75% two weeks out, 50% one week before the race and then 25% during race week.

I have to preface my next statement by saying that every runner is different.  What might work well for one athlete does not deliver the same results for another.  Popular running plans are designed for the masses.  They are trying to address the needs of thousands and thousands of runners who have different experience levels, time in the sport, injury history as well as goals and aspirations.

It is tough to address all of those individual areas with a “one size fits all” approach.

The primary goal of any marathon training plan should be to deliver a well-trained athlete to the starting line, but even more importantly should be to deliver a healthy one.  The taper period allows the athlete to “rebound” from a  tough training cycle and recover before a max-effort performance in the marathon, but it does just as much good by allowing the nicks, bumps and bruises that accumulate over the course of 18-20 weeks time to heal.

As I reflected on my races in Pittsburgh, Boston and Austin I felt as if I had peaked about a week too early with a three-week taper.  Two weeks after my final long run I felt super-strong on my final 10-12 mile run one week before the marathon.

My legs felt strong, my turnover felt smooth and easy and I was chomping at the bit to race.

One week later I felt a little bit “stale” for lack of a better term.  My legs were a bit heavier, I had gained a couple of pounds that I was lugging around due to the decreased mileage and I feel that I would have been better off racing a week earlier.

So for New York I decided to shorten my taper period to just 14 days.  I removed essentially the “first week” of the traditional taper where mileage is reduced to just 75% of a runner’s peak mileage.

I simply cut my mileage to 50% during the first week of the taper, then 25% leading up to race day.  This added a 5th 20-22 mile long run to my training period which was another added benefit to the revised schedule, but I hoped that the major improvement would come on race morning.  I was hoping to feel very refreshed but not so far removed from my final endurance workout.

Like any “test” it is hard to measure the impact of a change in strategy or approach if you have more than one variable at work.

In a true test, I would have run identical mileage and workouts throughout the training cycle and only changed the taper period.  I of course did not do that as I also increased my mileage over the course of the training cycle by 8-10%.

That said, I can only go on the way my final shake-out run the morning before the marathon felt as well as the race itself.  Simply put, the two-week taper period won out hands down.

As I left my hotel to run up to the finish line in Central Park my legs felt simply tremendous.  I ran smooth and easy without feeling like I was working hard or pushing the least bit.  The 2.3 mile run came in right at 7:10 min./mile pace.

My pace over the course of the marathon the following day:  7:11 min./mile pace.

The result was a new Marathon PR by just under 7:00 minutes in a time of 3:08:09 on a challenging course.

As I put the finishing touches on my training plan for the 116th Boston Marathon this April I will continue to tweak the balance of my long runs, tempo workouts, hill repeats and pace workouts.

One change I will not be making however will be to my taper period. 

Two weeks appears to be the right balance between recovery and preparation for this marathoner.  In about 4 weeks we will begin our next cycle for our next and more than likely final dance with the marathon in Boston, changing over full-time to chase our triathlon dreams and aspirations.

This spring at Boston I plan on going out in style.

  1. Mark Kelley says:

    Hi Joe – I’ve been stressing on the two-week taper my new coach planned for a month now. Despite the fact I’ve been training/racing for years I was going to do the three week taper as always, but opted to stick with the program for Boston this year and do my last 20 mile run next Saturday (16 days out). Thanks for posting this.

    • joerunfordom says:

      Mark, congrats on Boston! I think you will really feel great at the end of the shorter taper. Especially those last 72 hours before the race. Just stay calm that week and your legs will bounce back and be ready to roll in Hopkinton. Enjoy Boston, I wish you great weather this year!

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