Why should I taper my marathon training?

Last weekend I had an 18 mile run scheduled and ran 18.5. That run was two weeks before my first marathon. My plan was run 20 miles this weekend (1 week before the marathon). Since then, I have learned that you really should taper off on your workout schedule during the last few weeks of marathon training. This put me in a bit of a quandary. Which would be more beneficial, a long run of 18.5 miles and taper for 2 weeks or a long run of 20 miles and taper for 1 week?

Initially, I figured that a 20 mile run was the way to go. The closer to 26.2, the better and having a run in the 20’s would be a confidence boost. Besides, why would I want to decrease my training when the race distance is more than I have ever gone?

Fortunately, I know several veteran marathon runners who I can ask for advice so I did. They all gave the same answer. Stop training at 18 and start tapering. Their response inspired me to go back and do some more research on marathon training. I primarily wanted to know what was the optimum distance for a long run and what are the benefits of tapering.

Long Run Distance – I was surprised to find that many expert marathon trainers actually recommend that people do NOT run over 18 miles in training. The risk of injury rises sharply after you pass the 3 hour mark. The chance of hurting yourself so close to race day far outweighs the benefit involved with running those 2 extra miles.

Tapering – This seemed counter-intuitive to me but after doing some research, it now makes sense. Reducing your workouts just before the race will give your body time to recover so you’ll perform better on race day. Glycogen stores and various other important chemicals are restored to peak levels. Muscles are allowed to repair. Some people even experience a few ‘phantom pains’ which are mysterious aches and pains in seemingly strange places. Some experts believe that these are caused by your body performing these repairs.

After learning this, the choice was easy. Stop at 18 and taper. I’m adding these to my training guidelines  Don’t exceed 18 miles in one run. Taper for a minimum of 2 but preferably 3 weeks. The final week should consist of only a couple 3 to 5 mile runs.

I’m also adding these nutrition guidelines to my tapering routine. Eat a lot of protein for muscle repair and eat complex carbohydrates to replenish glycogen levels. Rice, pasta, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes are good examples. Reduce fat intake. Reduce diuretics such as coffee and alcohol which may have an impact on your chances of dehydrating during the race.

Coffee and alcohol? Really? Man, this had better work.