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Study says a longer, stricter taper is best for recreational marathon runners

New research suggests runners of all levels benefit from a strict, three-week taper

The taper is an extremely important part of your marathon training plan. It’s the final phase of your training, when you begin to decrease your mileage and intensity to allow your body to recover in time for a strong race-day performance. The majority of studies about how to taper properly have focused on elite or highly competitive runners, but there is very little information about how recreational runners taper, and whether it should be the same or different. A recent data report analyzed the tapering habits of thousands of recreational runners and found that those who followed a strict three-week taper performed better on race day.

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The types of tapers

The researchers defined different types of tapers based on a combination of duration (one to four weeks of decreasing training volume) and type (strict versus relaxed). A strict taper is one in which you progressively decrease training in the weeks leading up to the marathon, without any increases. A relaxed taper, on the other hand, may have increases in training volume throughout the taper. For example, a 3-week relaxed taper may involve 2 weeks of tapering, followed by one week of increased training volume, followed by another week of tapering.

The study

The researchers analyzed the tapering habits and performances of more than 150,000 recreational marathon runners and found that strict tapers were associated with faster 10 km paces than relaxed tapers. Longer strict tapers were subsequently associated with faster marathon times. In fact, runners who followed a strict, three- to four-week taper were more than five minutes faster, on average, than those who followed a relaxed one-week taper.

“In other words,” they explained, “longer strict tapers are associated with runners who can complete their marathon at a pace that is closer to their fastest 10 km training pace.”

In summary, the major findings from the study are as follows:

  1. Strict tapers were associated with faster finish times than relaxed tapers, regardless of the length of the taper.
  2. Longer tapers (3-4 weeks) were associated with faster finish times than shorter tapers, regardless of taper type.
  3. The most minimal taper (1 week relaxed) was associated with poorer performance than all other durations and types of taper.

Men vs. women

The researchers also assessed the differences between male and female marathon runners and found that the women experience a bigger boost from tapering than their male counterparts. For example, their data showed that after a two-week strict taper, women had a 3.12 per cent benefit, while men only saw a 2.14 per cent benefit. This benefit was consistent across all taper types, although the difference was smaller for 4-week tapers.

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The bottom line

Whether you’re an elite, competitive or recreational runner, you should be tapering ahead of your marathon. The most effective taper is a strict, three-week decrease in training volume, so you should factor that into your training plan to give yourself the best chance at performing well on race day. This is true even if your training didn’t go as planned and you feel under-prepared for the event. You won’t gain any fitness in the last couple of weeks before the race, so you’re better off allowing your body to recover fully so you can feel strong when you’re standing on the start line.