It is essential to add a marathon taper week (or weeks) during your last few weeks of training before a big marathon, half marathon or race. As important as it is it is often overlooked and is one of the top 5 most common training errors (the other four being: overtraining, undertraining, implementing exercises and intensities that are not sport specific to running, and not following a long term training schedule to help you reach your goals.)
If you wish to reach your peak potential fitness capacity before the marathon you must employ the right nutrition plan, training, and rest methods. This is where the marathon taper comes in.
Tapering is the reduction in training load (volume or amount of training and intensity) in order to achieve peak performance prior to a race.
The marathon taper is usually 3 weeks or less depending on the length of the training program. The exact length of the taper is still one of those training tactics that is widely disputed however it should last for at least 3 days up to 21 days.
Most research agrees that an endurance runner can reduce their training load up to 60% for 21 days without any negative effects to their performance levels. However most endurance runners get antsy and so the taper is usually less than 3 weeks.
Most commonly you will see a 1 week marathon taper however a 2 week marathon taper really hits the sweet spot.
Components of a 2 Week Marathon Taper:
The Day Before the Race:
A lot of runners feel better if they run a couple miles (1-3) the day before the race. This is certainly fine to do however don't go fast, don't watch the clock, just get your legs moving and the blood flowing and jog the muscle memory cells for their upcoming task the next day.
Tapering for 3-4 weeks can result in about a 2-4% improvement on race performance.
I hear you, it doesn't sound like much but...
Let's say that pre-taper your body is capable of running a 3:30 marathon. After your tapering period you are capable of now possibly running around a 3:23 marathon. Those few minutes might be all you need to qualify for Boston or set a new PR.
Another way to look at the numbers is that that is an improvement percentage. Think about what might happen if you do not do the marathon taper. Your body will not be rested, you will suffer in performance and could have to drop out of the race if your body thinks that it cannot handle the intensity. Who want's that?
Still doesn't sound like a lot to you? It might not be much especially if you aren't a serious athlete but for those who are even semi-enthusiastic about meeting a time goal this is an easy, easy, way to shave off a couple minutes. All that is required is to cut your training load! How often does life hand you a freebie like that?
Other helpful links included in the text:
Galloway, Jeff. Galloway's Book on Running. Bolinas, CA: Shelter Publications, 1984. Print.
Murach, Kevin, Ulrika Raue, Brittany Wilkerson, Kiril Minchev, Bozena Jemiolo, James Bagley, Nicholas Luden, and Scott Trappe. "Single Muscle Fiber Gene Expression with Run Taper." PLOS One (2014): n. pag. Pubmed. Web.
Powers, Scott K., and Edward T. Howley. Exercise Physiology: Theory and Application to Fitness and Performance. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2007. Print.