A new study reveals that most marathon runners aren’t tapering for their marathons correctly and are hurting their marathon performance as a result. So, what’s the optimal marathon taper length?
That’s what we are here to find out by delving into the research and talking with experienced running coaches.
Chances are many recreational runners do the marathon taper wrong likely because they are afraid of losing fitness and they don’t know how to do it.
Unless you have a running coach or follow a well-designed marathon training schedule, you can over-taper or under-taper and end up feeling flat on race day.
We want to help you avoid that!
In this article, we will uncover:
- What exactly is a marathon taper
- The benefits of a marathon taper
- What this latest study has found about proper marathon tapering
- What the right marathon taper length is
- Factors that influence the optimal marathon taper length
- What a traditional marathon taper should look like
- Ingredients of a proper marathon taper, and
- The bottomline on marathon tapers
Let’s get into it!
What is a marathon taper?
A marathon taper is a reduced training load in the weeks leading up to race day. The purpose is to allow your body to recover from high-volume and high-intensity training to help you perform better on race day.
“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,” explains Dr. Jason Karp, running coach and author of Running a Marathon for Dummies.
What are the benefits of a marathon taper?
The main benefit of a marathon taper is a faster marathon finish time.
Karp says this happens 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 helping give muscles the oxygen they need to perform
- Increases in muscle-glycogen content giving you more fuel
- Improved aerobic-enzyme activity allowing for greater aerobic metabolism
- Improved muscular strength and power
- Increase or maintenance of maximum oxygen consumption aka VO2 max
- 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 per cent in fitness gains, due to super compensation theory.“Two per cent may not seem significant, but for a 3:30 marathoner, just a two per cent improvement is a 3:26 finish time, a PR which many runners would be very happy with,” explains Norris.
3 key findings from the latest study on marathon tapering
A new study in Frontiers in Sports and Active Living found that recreational runners who followed a strict taper versus a relaxed taper had faster marathon finish times.
Up until now, research into marathon tapers had focused on serious and elite runners. This research delved into the Strava profiles of 158,000 recreational marathoners and found that those who followed a minimal, relaxed taper ran about 5:30 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 runners (about 90 percent) did a 2-to-3-week taper, many of them were not disciplined in their approach (about 70 percent). Those who did not follow a strict taper had poorer relative performance than those who did.
2. A 3-week taper is better than a 2-week taper.
A switch from a relaxed 2-week taper to a strict 2-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 material (1.76–2.38 per cent for men and 2.73–3.19 per cent 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.
Related: How to Taper for a Marathon
What is a strict taper versus a relaxed taper?
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 not consistent in its reduction of mileage.
The main finding of the Frontiers study is those who maintained a stepdown in their training did better on race day.
“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.
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 for men from 1.29 per cent to 2.14 per cent and for women an improvement from 2.19 per cent to 3.12 per cent.
A 3-week marathon taper, on the other hand, was associated with a 1.76 per cent to 2.39 per cent improvement in men’s marathon finishing times. A 3-week taper for women saw an improvement in finishing times from 2.73 per cent to 3.19 per cent.
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 taper 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
Is four weeks too long of a taper?
Research has shown that 4-weeks may be too long of a marathon taper for many runners.
Runners who taper too long lose the muscle tension or “pop” in their legs and end up feeling stale on race day.
Is a 1-week marathon taper too short?
In most cases, a one-week marathon taper is 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.”
What factors determine your taper length?
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 much, or not enough.
What does a typical marathon taper look like?
A typical marathon taper includes a progressive reduction in volume over three weeks.
An example of a typical marathon taper looks like this:
- Week 3: 10 to 15 percent reduction in training volume
- Week 2: 40 to 35 percent reduction in training volume
- Week 1 (race week): 40 to 50 percent reduction in volume which does not include the marathon itself
It’s important to note that while you are running less, you should still be doing speedwork. It’s just that the speedwork will be in smaller doses relative to your overall volume.
Also, the reduction comes from reducing the duration of each session, rather than the frequency of runs.
What are the key ingredients of a marathon taper?
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.
Thus, in a marathon taper you want to look for these key ingredients:
- A gradual reduction in mileage spanning over the course of about three weeks
- The continuation of long runs but they are progressively shorter as you near race day
- The inclusion of intensity but on a smaller scale relative to the volume you’re running and including marathon pace work
- Keeping a similar workout schedule as you have been training with
- The elimination of strength work about 10-14 days out from race day.
Bottom line on the length of the marathon taper.
The length of a marathon taper is highly individual, though most runners tend to respond best to a three-week marathon taper.
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!