2 Weeks vs. 3 Weeks: How Long Should You Taper for a Marathon?

How long to taper for a marathon is a question many marathoners grapple with as it can be highly individual. Marathon taper length is based on training background, volume, and genetics. Yet, research shows a 3-week marathon taper works best for most recreational runners. 

Whitney Heins tapered for a marathon to run her best time in Carmel, Indiana
Three-week taper is the most successful marathon taper length.

How long to taper for a marathon is a question many marathoners grapple with as it can be highly individual based on training background, volume, and genetics. Indeed, finding the right marathon taper length for you is a bit of trial and error.

Related: How to Predict Your Marathon Time

Some runners prefer a longer marathon taper of 4 weeks or 3 weeks, while others prefer a shorter marathon taper of 2 weeks or even 1 week.

The most common marathon taper is 3 weeks and a study reveals that a 3-week marathon taper is most beneficial to recreational runners.

In this article, I am going to review how to determine what marathon taper length is best for you: 2 weeks or 3 weeks.

Related: How to Figure Out Your Marathon Pace

https://youtu.be/cTaNpWGcXGE?si=ZPetw0GX_3QqD5gJ

What is a marathon taper?

A quick review of a marathon taper. A marathon taper is when a marathon runner reduces his or her training load to allow the body to recover so the runner feels fresh on race day.  It beings after what is known as peak week where a runner does their longest long run.

Tapering for a marathon does not mean simply just resting. The marathon taper is a delicate balance between recovering while maintaining fitness and keeping the neuromuscular system sharp. If runners sat around for 1-3 weeks leading up to their marathon race day, they’d likely feel lethargic and out of shape for the big day. So, a runner will still be running during a marathon taper, just not as much.

Related: What is Taper Madness? & What to Do During Taper Weeks

If you do a marathon taper correctly, you will reap the benefits of a faster marathon time (by 2-3 percent) because of key physiological adaptations happen during that recovery period that can equal big fitness gains:

  • increased red blood cell volume and total blood volume;
  • improvements in the health of red blood cells helping give muscles the oxygen they need to perform;
  • increased muscle glycogen stores 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 V.O2max; and
  • a decreased level of creatine kinase in the blood signaling repaired muscles from training stress.

Related: 13 Tips To Nail Your Race Day PR

An improvement of 2-3 percent in your marathon finish time may not sound like a lot, but it could equal 5 minutes or more depending on your pace! I think most runners would be happy with a 5-minute marathon PR!

marathon taper length pin
A three week taper is the most appropriate taper length for most runners. Pin these marathon taper length tips for later!

Related: How to Avoid Hitting the Wall in the Marathon

How do you do a marathon taper?

You taper for a marathon by gradually reducing the overall running volume over a few weeks after your last big long run. You do this while keeping the same intensity in your speed workouts. So, if you run about 20 percent of your mileage fast and the other 80 percent easy, then you would keep that ratio but just be running less of it. Over 2-4 weeks, a runner will progressively reduce their running volume, setting them up for peak performance!

Below are examples of different marathon tapers that start after you longest long run.

Related: The Best Fast & Flat Fall Marathons

4 Week Marathon Taper:

  • Week 4: 10 to 15 percent total reduction in total weekly mileage
  • Week 3: 15 to 25 percent total reduction in training volume
  • Week 2: 35 percent total reduction in training volume
  • Week 1 (race week): 40 to 50 percent reduction in volume which does not include the marathon itself. (So if you include the marathon, the weekly volume will equal close to your typical weekly training volume). Also, most marathon training plans for more advanced runners will include a running workout with goal marathon pace miles. 

3 Week Marathon Taper:

  • Week 3: 10 to 15 percent total reduction in average weekly mileage
  • Week 2: 40 to 35 percent total reduction in volume of training
  • Week 1 (race week): 40 to 50 percent reduction in volume which does not include the marathon itself. 

2 Week Marathon Taper:

  • Week 2: 25-35 percent reduction in volume
  • Week 1: 40-50 percent reduction in volume

1 Week Marathon Taper:

  • Week 1 (race week): 30-50 percent reduction in volume

marathon taper length post
A marathon taper length is very individual and varies cycle to cycle.

Related: 26 Pro Race Day Tips for 26.2

So for a marathoner who runs about 50 miles per week, a 3-week taper would look like:

  • Week 3: 42-45 miles per week (mpw)
  • Week 2: 32-35 mpw
  • Week 1 (final week, race week): 25-30 mpw (plus the marathon)

Read more in-depth on how to do a marathon taper, why you feel terrible when you taper for a marathon, and what to do taper week here.

marathon taper length pin 2
A three week taper is the most appropriate taper length for most runners. Pin these marathon taper length tips for later!

How can I tell how long I should marathon taper?

A 2021 study reveals most recreational runners run faster times with a 3-week taper (more on that below). For this reason, for most runners, I suggest trying a 3-week taper first.

However, the below factors affect how long you should taper for a marathon, and may help you clue in to what is the best marathon taper length for you.

  • Training Load:
    • If you run high volume (like more than 70 miles per week), your body may do better with a two-week taper as it is used to the stimulus and may feel flat on lower miles for an extended period.
    • If you run low volume (less than 40mpw), you may do better with a shorter marathon taper of 2 weeks as your body is not needing as much recovery)

  • Level of fatigue:
    • High volume runners may feel fatigued and need more recovery.
    • On the flip side, new runners running lower mileage may need longer tapers to recover.
  • Genetics
    • If you have more slow-twitch muscle fibers, you may feel “poppy” with a shorter taper.
    • Marathon runners with fast twitch muscle fibers may need longer to recover from the long runs so may do better with a 3-week, or even 4-week taper.

What about a 4-week taper?

Research has shown that 4-weeks may be too long of a marathon taper for many runners.

Runners who do a big taper may lose the muscle tension or “pop” in their legs and end up feeling stale on race day.

What about a 1-week marathon taper?

In most cases, a one-week marathon taper period 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.” (By the way, one week is usually the right amount of a half marathon taper).

How do I know if my marathon taper is the right length?

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, and you need to adjust in your next training cycle.

If you showed up to the starting line with legs that felt poppy and ready to rock, you nailed your marathon taper!

How Long Should You Taper for a Marathon–2 weeks vs. 3 weeks?

As noted, if this is your first marathon, you should start with a 3-week taper. I say this based on a research study of 158,000 recreational marathoners—a study the first of its kind looking at recreational runners rather than elite runners.

  • The study found that runners who followed a strict taper (e.g. a progressive reduction in miles) versus a relaxed taper (ad hoc without gradually reducing volume) ran faster marathon times.
  • Also, runners who tapered over three weeks versus two weeks ran faster times. Specifically:
  • A 3-week marathon taper was associated with a 2.38 percent improvement in men’s marathon finishing times and a 3.19 percent improvement in women’s marathon times.
  • This is opposed to a 2-week marathon taper which saw an improvement for men of 1.29 percent and an improvement of 3.12 percent for women.

Longer Disciplined Tapers Improve Marathon Performance for Recreational Runners, Frontiers in Sports & Active Living table
“Longer Disciplined Tapers Improve Marathon Performance for Recreational Runners,” Frontiers in Sports & Active Living table

A running coach (like me!) can help you find the best marathon taper length in your marathon training plan for you get than race day PR at the finish line! Indeed, how long you taper for your marathon may vary from  marathon training cycle to training cycle!

If you want guidance with your running goals, including tapering for a marathon, check out my run coaching services. Also, be sure to check out my free training plans:

 

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