Marathon Taper Nutrition

If you’re looking for tips for your half marathon taper, marathon taper nutrition, or beyond, you’ve come to the right place! Taper nutrition is important to understand to properly implement your race day strategy.  

group of runners running a race

What is a Taper?

A taper refers to the time period at the end of a training cycle, usually before a race, where the training load (volume and or intensity) is markedly reduced so that athletes recover from intense training and feel energized before major events. This load reduction can be achieved by reducing the intensity, volume and/or frequency of training.

According to Runners World, tapering properly means cutting your weekly mileage volume by 20 to 30 percent each week from your highest volume week, for 2-3 weeks. For example, if your highest mileage week was 40 miles, you would cut your mileage by 8 to 12 miles each week.

The latter part of the taper usually coincides with carb loading, which is another part of preparation before a distance race.

Check out this post on carb loading for runners for more tips on how to do it. You want to make sure you’re picking the best foods for carb loading to get more bang for your buck.

Research shows any race over 90 – 120 minutes will benefit from a carb load if you plan on going hard/racing. Carb loading can prevent the feeling of “hitting the wall,” postpone fatigue, and extend the duration of your long run/race by about 20%, and improve performance by about 2-3%.

What is the Point of a Marathon Taper?

We do a taper for a few reasons.

Recover from training-induced damages – Firstly, we want to allow your muscles to rest and recover from training-induced damage that has occurred throughout training.

Some coaches or schools of thought believe in reducing the volume as well as the intensity. However, there are other thoughts about keeping the intensity high. A study in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports found that high-intensity training can help to maintain or further enhance training-induced adaptations while athletes then reduce their training before a major competition in the taper.

Training at high intensities before the taper plays a key role in inducing maximal physiological and performance adaptations in both moderately trained subjects and highly trained athletes. In other words, keep your run intensity to your goal race pace, and no faster.

leg muscles and tendons

Restore Glycogen Levels – The taper also helps the body to “catch up” and restore glycogen levels to maximum capacity before race day, usually leading into the carb loading period.

Avoid Overtraining – Lastly, doing a proper taper helps avoid going into a race overtrained and reduces the likelihood of overtraining, and hence, injury. 

When Should you Taper?

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. The average is between 1-3 weeks.

When deciding when to taper, keep in mind that the taper period usually begins immediately upon completing your last long training run, which is usually between 20 and 23 miles.

However, how long in advance you taper will depend on your training, your event, your running coach, etc. In total, it will usually total 2-3 weeks or less.

2021 study found that strict 3-week tapers were associated with superior marathon finish-time benefits (a median finish-time saving of 5 minutes and 32.4 s or 2.6%), which can be huge!

white male runner and black female runner stretching

Half Marathon Taper

Here is how you could structure a two week half marathon taper with some taper tips.

Start your taper 2 weeks before your race day, immediately following your last long run, or fastest/longest speed and resistance workout. Then, cut your weekly mileage in half for the two weeks of tapering.

Make sure you’re following your half marathon nutrition plan!

From a nutrition standpoint, taper nutrition is also very important. The taper time is not a time to think about numbers and calories, though. You want to ensure you’re fueling adequately and eating from the athletes plate, or performance plates. These are great guides for overall balance on your plate, with a more extreme focus on carbohydrates.

performance plate hard training day

Your taper period is not the time to try low carb running, the keto and running trend, or anything else. Your body still has a need for each macronutrient group:

  • Carbohydrates-Carbohydrate foods keep your glycogen stores stocked, and provide energy, fiber, antioxidants, and essential vitamins and minerals. Your diet should be about 50-65% carbohydrates. During the taper period, aim for more complex carbohydrates, which provide more fiber to stabilize blood sugar and more bang for your buck. A variety of fruits and vegetables and color will help provide antioxidants to reduce the inflammation from training.
  • Protein – Your half marathon taper should include plenty of protein to prevent muscle protein breakdown, support muscle repair, support hormones, immunity and everything else. Protein for runners is often underemphasized, and during half or full marathon training, needs may be as high as 1.4-2.0 g/kg/day.
  • Fat – Fats are also important to be including at each meal for their anti-inflammatory benefits. Aim for olive oil or avocado oil, seafood, nuts, seeds, full fat dairy
  • Hydration – Staying adequately hydrated is important during all aspects of training. Make sure to incorporate electrolytes, especially if you’re a heavy or salty sweater. Our guide on hydration for runners has many tips.

Make sure you are also implementing your recovery after the half marathon.

Marathon Taper Nutrition

The biggest difference between your half marathon taper and marathon taper will likely be the reduction in mileage as well as your appetite, maybe. While the taper would seem to translate to being less hungry (since you’re running less), that isn’t always the case. And that’s okay!

Honoring your hunger is extra important during the taper. You want to give your body lots of extra nutrients to keep on board for race day, and if you get too hungry, it’s likely that your glycogen stores are decreasing.

oatmeal with fruit

The same nutrition will apply whether you’re following a 2 week marathon taper schedule or 3 week.

Think about making the majority of your plate carbs, at least 50% starting Tue/Wed on the week of your race. Then, bump that up to 70-80% Thursday/Friday, depending on race day as you carb load.

When carb loading, you still want to include protein (2-3 oz) with meals but try to minimize vegetables, especially cruciferous ones, and fat. Ensure you’re carb loading in the 60-72 hours before your marathon (2.5-3 days).

You can also do this in 24-36 as long as you don’t train at all, but this is a really short window and may cause more GI distress. You’ll still want to follow the hard training performance plates, switching between the moderate days as the taper goes on.

Why is Tapering So Hard?

The taper period can be challenging for many athletes for a few reasons.

Firstly, as type A runners, we tend to think that we always have to do more. We are prone to get more antsy as we are more sedentary.

To overcome this, I usually suggest runners focus on mobility and flexibility, and/or find other hobbies to fill in the gap.

Secondly, runners are now moving less and perhaps eating more, or the same amount. This can be physically (and mentally) uncomfortable for some.

To overcome this, remind yourself of your ultimate goals. It’s also worth considering if you’re running just to lose or maintain weight?

woman in pink sports bra flexing muscles

Weight usually becomes a big focus for runners in times of the taper, and reminding yourself that you are running for other reasons and trying to meet your race goal.

Gaining some weight may happen during the “carb loading” phase and it’s completely normal as your body increases its glycogen stores (which also comes with an increase in water, which usually accounts for the weight gain).

Another good reminder is that your body is smart, and knows what its doing. It’s giving you hunger signals for a reason – it needs energy. Review the 10 principles of intuitive eating for a good insight into getting more in tune with your body and its nutrition needs.

We also have some great podcast episodes to listen to:

Another thing you can do during the taper period (with more time) is focus on meal prep for your marathon recovery period.

brown rice, veggies and meat in meal prep containers

Won’t a Taper Reduce my Fitness Before a Race?

Physiological adaptations to training take a minimum of six weeks. Therefore, training hard during the final two to three weeks before your marathon is not going to improve your performance.

Instead, taking the time to back off a bit with the taper and some rest can really help keep those muscles fresh and improve glycogen stores.holding out water cup during a race

Research has shown that tapering is essential for a successful race. Some studies indicate that tapering properly can mean a 3 percent improvement in performance; which may likely be a possible PR, especially when combined with the increase from carb loading.

Most research agrees that endurance runners can reduce their training load up to 60% for 21 days without any negative effects to their performance levels.

Sources:

Campbell, B., Kreider, R.B., Ziegenfuss, T. et al. International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: protein and exercise. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 4, 8 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1186/1550-2783-4-8

Hawley, J. A., Schabort, E. J., Noakes, T. D., & Dennis, S. C. (1997). Carbohydrate-loading and exercise performance: An update. Sports Medicine, 24(2), 73-81.

Mujika I. Intense training: the key to optimal performance before and during the taper. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2010 Oct;20 Suppl 2:24-31. doi: 10.1111/j.1600-0838.2010.01189.x. PMID: 20840559.

Smyth B, Lawlor A. Longer Disciplined Tapers Improve Marathon Performance for Recreational Runners. Front Sports Act Living. 2021 Sep 28;3:735220. doi: 10.3389/fspor.2021.735220. PMID: 34651125; PMCID: PMC8506252.

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