The taper is the part marathon training all runners look forward to, almost as much as crossing the finish line at the end of those 26.2 miles. It means most of the hard work is behind you – except for the race day itself – and you can begin resting your body in preparation for the big day (and, of course, the all-important carb-loading).
The general rule, advised by most marathon training programmes and running coaches, is a two-week taper, beginning a fortnight from the date of your race. From that point, your training effort and volume should begin to decrease, so you’re still running regularly but not clocking up the distance or hard intervals that comprised the previous months’ training.
However, a new study, by Frontiers in Sports and Active Living, found that longer tapering periods of up to three weeks resulted in better marathon day performance than shorter two-week or less tapers. The study even drilled down to the average time difference it can make, saving runners a median finish time of 5 minutes 32.4 seconds, or 2.6%.
In addition, women were found to benefit more from a strict three-week taper, and all athletes in the study produced better times when sticking to a disciplined taper rather than a more relaxed taper programme where they didn’t always stick to the sessions assigned.
This was by no means a small study – 158,000 runners took part, with data collected via training platform Strava. It found that moving to a strict three-week taper can improve your time by up to 2.38% (males), and 3.19% (women). It also found the extra week of tapering resulted in finishing times more consistent with the runner’s fastest 10K pace.
The researchers discovered that only 31% of recreational runners stick to tapers. As a result, they suggest that re-structuring training to take on a more disciplined three-week reduction in training load and volume in the run-up to marathon day could have a significant effect on race day, and may even lead to that marathon PB you’ve been aiming towards.