How Long Should You Taper Before A Marathon? Here’s What the Research Says

How long should your taper be? Researchers analyzed the training activities of more than 158,000 recreational runners to find out.

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After months of intense marathon training, it can feel counterintuitive to slow your roll in the last few weeks before your race. But that’s exactly what a taper is: An opportunity to tone down your training, reduce your mileage and intensity, and let your body really absorb the months of hard work you’ve put in — while simultaneously resting in order to regroup your full strength and energy by race day.

For some runners, the taper is a dream. A chance to rest after a physically and mentally demanding couple of months?! Bring it on! 

However, a lot of the runners I coach absolutely HATE the taper. Even though it’s designed with optimal race performance in mind, it disrupts the routine they’ve so diligently followed for the past several months, and can even make them feel lazy. Many of my runners report feeling sluggish rather than rested. And for some of my female athletes especially, this less intense volume of mileage worries them that if they don’t pay close attention to their nutrition, they’ll have a few extra pounds to cart around with them on race day.

This leads to a lot of athletes “kind of” (but not really) tapering, or asking me to keep their taper short and sweet (just two weeks).

Despite the apprehension about the taper, research shows that a longer, more disciplined taper may improve marathon performance.

A study published in Frontiers in Sport and Active Living analyzed the training activities of more than 158,000 recreational marathon runners to define tapers based on a decrease in training volume (or weekly mileage). 

Researchers found that strict tapers were associated with better mathon performance compared to relaxed tapers, and that longer tapers (up to three weeks) were associated with better performance when compared to shorter tapers. In fact, a strict three-week taper was associated with a median finish-time saving of 5 minutes and 30s, or 2.6%, when compared to a shorter taper.

These study results are similar to previous research on the subject, and suggest that recreational runners can improve their marathon performance by adopting a longer, more regimented taper.

The bottom line? The dreaded taper might just be your ticket to a new PR. Embrace it!

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

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