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What’s The Optimal Marathon Taper Length?

How to make the final weeks of marathon training pay off!

A 2021 study1Smyth, B., & Lawlor, A. (2021). Longer Disciplined Tapers Improve Marathon Performance for Recreational Runners. Frontiers in Sports and Active Living3. https://doi.org/10.3389/fspor.2021.735220 found that most marathon runners aren’t tapering for their marathons correctly and are hurting their marathon performance as a result.

The length of a marathon taper is highly individual, though most runners tend to respond best to a three-week marathon taper. 

Read on to learn what the research and experienced running coaches reveal about the benefits of the taper in your marathon training plan, how long the marathon taper should be, and how you should reduce your weekly mileage before your marathon race. 

Whats The Optimal Marathon Taper Length

What Is a Marathon Taper?

A marathon taper comes at the end of your training cycle where you decrease your training volume in the final weeks leading up to your big race.

The purpose of the taper before a marathon is to allow your body to recover from high-volume and high-intensity training to help you perform better on race day. 

Dr. Jason Karp, running coach and author of Running a Marathon for Dummies says, “The goal of tapering is to recover from prior training without compromising your previous training adaptations. In other words, you want to decrease fatigue without losing fitness.”

Note that most runners also taper before a half marathon but the half marathon taper is shorter than for a marathon.

What Are the Benefits Of a Marathon Taper?

The main benefit of a marathon taper is a faster marathon finish time. 

In other words, if you’ve put in all of the hard work for many weeks of training, doing your marathon taper correctly will optimize your chances of nailing your goal pace and reaching your marathon goal.

And who doesn’t want that?!

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Karp says the marathon taper helps you improve your chances of a better performance on race day due to several physiological changes that can occur during the taper period such as:

  • Increases in red blood cell volume, total blood volume, and improvements in the health of red blood cells, which help provide your muscles the oxygen they need to perform.
  • Increases in muscle-glycogen content, giving you more carbohydrates for fuel on race day, and carbs are the optimal energy source for race pace efforts.
  • Improvements in aerobic-enzyme activity, which allows for greater aerobic metabolism.
  • Improvements in muscular strength and power due to full recovery from your speed workouts tempo runs, longest runs, and overall mileage.
  • Decreases in the risk of overtraining after a long training cycle.
  • A decreased level of creatine kinase in the blood, signaling repaired muscles from training stress.

Laura Norris, running coach at Laura Norris Running, adds that research has suggested if you taper correctly, you can see 2 percent in fitness gains, due to super compensation theory. 

“Two percent may not seem significant, but for a 3:30 marathoner, just a two percent improvement is a 3:26 finish time, a PR which many runners would be very happy with,” explains Norris. 

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What Does the Research Show About Tapering Before a Marathon?

The study in Frontiers in Sports and Active Living2Smyth, B., & Lawlor, A. (2021). Longer Disciplined Tapers Improve Marathon Performance for Recreational Runners. Frontiers in Sports and Active Living3. https://doi.org/10.3389/fspor.2021.735220 found that recreational runners who followed a strict taper versus a relaxed taper in their training schedule had faster marathon finish times. 

Up until now, research into marathon tapers has focused on elite marathon runners.

This research delved into the Strava profiles of 158,000 recreational marathoners and found that those who followed a minimal, relaxed taper–such as just in the last week of the race–ran about 5 and a half minutes slower than similar runners who used a strict 3-week taper. 

Three key findings in this study include:

1. Most recreational marathoners don’t taper correctly. 

Although most of the marathon runners (about 90 percent) did a two-week taper or three-week taper, about 70% of the runners were not disciplined marathon taper plan.

Those who did not follow a strict taper had poorer relative performance than those who did. 

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2. A 3-week taper is better than a 2-week taper. 

A switch from a relaxed two-week taper to a strict two-week taper is associated with an improvement for men from 1.29 percent (relaxed) to 2.14 percent (strict) and a corresponding improvement for women from 2.19 percent to 3.12 percent.

The scale of the improvement is less for 3-week tapers but still significant (1.76–2.38 percent for men and 2.73–3.19 percent for women).

3. A strict taper gives a bigger boost to women than men. 

The study found that longer tapers and more disciplined tapers were associated with improved performance benefits for recreational runners, especially for women.

But, what exactly is a “strict taper” vs a “relaxed taper period?”

A strict taper means a marathoner adheres to a strict reduction in mileage that increases as the runner approaches race day.

A relaxed taper is inconsistent in its reduction of mileage, or may only cut easy runs without reducing the length of the long runs, or vice versa. 

The main finding of the Frontiers study is that marathon runners who took a full three-week taper and more systematically stepped down their training volume did better on race day. 

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“That includes adhering to a plan even as you start to feel good and being deliberate in progressively de-loading training,” explained Norris.

Therefore, athletes who were tempted to “test” their fitness before race day or perhaps, ran too much on a whim due to fears of losing fitness, performed sub-optimally. 

Related: Celebrity Marathon Times: How Do You Compare to These Famous Marathoners

What Is the Optimal Marathon Taper Length?

According to this latest study, the optimal marathon taper length is 3 weeks. A three-week taper gave the biggest boost in marathon finish times. 

As noted, a strict 2-week marathon taper was associated with an improvement of 1.29 – 2.14% for men and 2.19 – 3.12% for women. 

A 3-week marathon taper, on the other hand, was associated with a 1.76 – 2.39% improvement in men’s marathon finishing times.

A 3-week taper for women saw an improvement in finishing times from 2.73 – 3.19%. 

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Should Everyone Do a 3-Week Marathon Taper?

It is important to note that a 3-week taper is not appropriate for all marathoners. 

“The exact duration of your taper will vary depending on your prior training load, your level of fatigue, and your genetics,” suggests Karp.

For some people, a 2-week taper is best. In some cases, a 4-week taper or a 1-week taper3Koepp, K., & Janot, J. (n.d.). TAPERING: SCIENCE AND PRACTICE. Retrieved March 15, 2024, from https://www.ideafit.com/wp-content/uploads/files/_archive/092005_taperingsc.pdfYeah I was just weird that she said that particular thing may be more optimal. For example, former pro runner Neely Gracey only tapered for one week to qualify for the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials in the marathon. 

This was because Gracey decided 6 weeks ahead of the Houston Marathon to run it and try to qualify for the trials. Thus, she had 5 weeks to train and only one week to taper

Related: 28 Funny Marathon Signs

Research4Gale – Product Login. (n.d.). Galeapps.gale.com. Retrieved March 15, 2024, from https://go.gale.com/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CA135841162&sid=googleScholar&v=2.1&it=r&linkaccess=abs&issn=1548419X&p=AONE&sw=w&userGroupName=mlin_oweb&isGeoAuthType=true&aty=geo has shown that 4 weeks may be too long of a marathon taper for many runners. 

Runners who taper too long may start to lose fitness and feel stale on race day.

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On the other hand, a one-week marathon taper is usually too short. 

Indeed, the Frontiers study found that a one-week taper was “associated with poorer performance than all other types of taper except the non-taper.”

How Long Should I Taper Before a Marathon?

Your training load, background, and genetics will help determine your optimal taper length—and in some cases, it may be trial and error. 

Some runners who thrive on high mileage may feel flat with a 3-week marathon taper and prefer a 2-week taper. Runners who run low mileage may only need a 2-week taper as well. 

On the flip side, high-mileage runners often need more of a taper to recover optimally. 

If you show up to the start line without feeling fresh, chances are your taper was too long, too short, too aggressive, or not significant enough. 

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How Do You Taper for a Marathon?

A typical marathon taper includes a progressive reduction in training volume over three weeks. 

An example of a typical marathon taper looks like this:

  • Three weeks out from the race: 10 to 15 percent reduction in training volume
  • Two weeks out from the race: 40 to 35 percent reduction in training volume.
  • Race week percent: 40 to 50 percent reduction in volume, which does not include the marathon itself.

Your long runs should be scaled back during the taper, with your last 20 mile run 3-4 weeks out from race day.

It’s important to note that while you are running less, you should still be doing speedwork. and marathon pace efforts You want to cut volume but not intensity. 

Also, focus on cutting distance from your easy runs and long runs, not adding extra rest days while maintaining the same distance on the days you run.

You should also stop strength training about 10-14 days out from race day. 

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Overall, the goal of the marathon taper is to allow for recovery from your training load while maintaining fitness and staying fresh. 

It’s essentially a shrinking of what you were typically doing during your marathon training. 

What’s most important is sticking to your marathon taper and gradually reducing your training volume over time. 

Having a coach or a well-designed training plan that you vow to stick to will help you run a faster marathon time!

Check out our marathon training resources to help you with your marathon taper plan and be on your way to your next PR!

References

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Whitney Heins is the founder of The Mother Runners and a VDOT-O2 certified running coach. She lives in Knoxville, TN with her two crazy, beautiful kids, pups, and husband. She is currently training to qualify for the US Olympic Trials marathon.

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