How to Taper for Your Best Marathon Yet

How to Taper
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You’ve made it through several months of marathon training, and race day is near.

Now is when you should cram in some last-minute speed sessions, right? Not quite.

While marathon training can be immensely physically and mentally rewarding, it can also be a major stressor for the body and mind. Both need adequate time to recover before embarking on those 26.2 miles. For this reason, most experts recommend tapering, or significantly cutting back on mileage in the two to three weeks before the race, in order to maximize performance when it really matters.

But how much should you cut back, what should you eat, and how do you master the taper crazies? We spoke with the experts to find out how you can get to the start line ready to rock.

Cut Your Mileage

After putting so much training volume on your legs over the past few months, it will feel a bit counterintuitive to back off so close to race day. Since you can’t gain fitness at this point, says Jason Fitzgerald, a 2:39 marathoner and founder of Strength Running, “the goals are simply to maintain and to fine-tune so you’ll feel ready to perform.” He recommends starting the taper two weeks out and reducing mileage between 20 and 40 percent in the first week. In the final week before the race, you’ll be running only about half of your peak distance. For example, if you ran 50 miles in your highest-volume week, you’ll cut down to 25 miles for your last week.

The same basic principles apply for both veteran and novice runners, but the application can be modified a bit. If you’re feeling tired, worn out or fatigued from your peak training, these are signs that your body needs a bit more rest, says Fitzgerald. More experienced runners can trust their instincts a bit more and cut their volume according to how they’re feeling. If you’ve been strength training or cross-training, you’ll want to cut back on the intensity of this, too. We know, we know, runners need to strength train — but not in the week before the race. You can wait until afterwards to lift heavy.

RELATED: Carb Loading for Runners: How to Prep for Race Day

Eat Right, Run Fast

Marathoner and running coach Michele Gonzalez likes to refer to the taper period as “filling up the tanks.” Now’s the time to make sure your nutrition and hydration are in check.

Even though you’ll be training less, it’s still important to eat as normal so that you’re not undereating, says Marni Sumbal, a registered dietitian and running and triathlon coach. The key is practicing mindful eating and steering clear of absent-minded snacking. “Rather than focusing on calories,” she says, “think about the diet in terms of energy-giving foods.”

To prevent feeling heavy and tired during race week, she recommends starting the day with a satisfying carb-rich meal to slowly release energy throughout the day. You should aim for 45 to 70 grams of carbs per meal and about 15 to 30 grams of carbs for snacks. In addition to your carb-loading, there should still be a focus on protein for recovery during the taper, as well as foods that fight inflammation, such as fish, ginger, celery and pineapple.

Work on Your Mental Game

Running is as much mental as it is physical, and the taper is no different. For first-timers, Barbara Walker, sports psychologist, says it’s helpful to know that you will feel strange during this last phase of your training schedule. You’ll likely feel very tense, both mentally and physically, as a result of your pre-race anxiety. Your legs may feel “phantom pains,” and your mind may be racing with all types of race-day scenarios. Find other activities to fill your time, and enjoy a few distractions like a new TV show or hobby to keep your mood light.

Now is also a good time to work on your visualization. Some runners need to calm down before the race, and some need to get amped up, according to Fitzgerald. For those runners who need to get excited about their race, he says, it can be helpful to simulate the race experience before it happens, envisioning how you’ll feel at different points along the course. “Picturing a strong race, a fast finish and a shiny new personal best are all strong motivators to get mentally ready for the race.”

Be sure to take some time to consider any possible snafus, as well. The last thing you want to do is scramble on race morning, so make sure you have all the logistics planned out ahead of time: what you’ll wear, what you’ll eat, how long it will take you to get to the race.

RELATED: 13 Race Day Tips for Newbie Runners

As soon as you wake up, be mindful to not hurry, says Walker. Slow down, and pay attention to your breathing. Diaphragmatic breathing can help calm down the mind and deccelerate the physical stress response. Find a few positive words to go along with your breath to reinforce the relaxation. For example. your mantra could be “relaxed and ready,” “confident and focused,” or “strong and smooth.”

The taper is just as important to a successful race as your training runs are. So respect it and enjoy this period just before your race — you’ve earned it. Trust your training and know that a week or two of rest is giving your body what it needs to perform its best on race day.

Did we miss any of your favorite taper tips? Leave them in the comments 

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