With 10 days until the Chicago Marathon, which several of you are running, I am sharing some insights on the "taper" period. Tapering refers to the intentional reduction of running volume in last weeks leading up to a race.
Research has shown that an effective taper can lead to a 3% performance improvement or several minutes when it comes to the marathon. Tapering allows your body's energy, strength, and health to return to optimal levels. Peak training depletes glycogen, wears down muscles, and suppresses your immune system.
The amount of fitness gains you can achieve in the final two weeks leading up to a marathon is almost negligible, so be sure to listen to your body. Most marathon plans call for a 3 week taper and 20-30% reduction in mileage each of those weeks with little or no training faster than your race goal pace. Some plans cut volume more sharply and focus on high-intensity efforts, some cut volume less and maintain routine, and some are in between.
What has worked best for me through plenty of experimentation is tapering about 12 days before a race, maintaining normal training until then. Longer taper periods caused too drastic of a change in routine and anxiety. I felt like I was running after a long vacation. In my taper period, my last hard run will be a 5 - 6 mile tempo run (between half marathon and 10k race pace) one week out. I incorporate strides, or fast ~100 meter bursts, at the end of a few easy runs in the last week.
Regardless of what works for you, don't go too easy or too hard during your taper! Focus on getting to the start healthy - staying hydrated, taking vitamins, and getting a balanced diet in the last two weeks. Here are my other taper tips:
Avoid upper body strengthening in the final two weeks while maintaining stretching and light core work
Ensure adequate and good carbs, fats, protein; remember electrolytes in the days before
Reduce or eliminate alcohol and caffeine, especially as the post-race beer can be an incentive and the mid-race caffeine can be a performance boost
Avoid trying anything new from apparel and shoes to nutrition and lifestyle
Stay off your feet and conserve energy the day before; if possible, go to the expo two days before
Reflect on and take strength in all the hard work and training you have done - running hills, speed, and tough weather conditions!