Say the word “taper” to a group of runners and you will receive an array from responses from “I hate the taper” to “I love the taper” to “I don’t taper.” But whether you love it or hate it, the taper works, and not just for the marathon. Tapering can make the difference between running a mediocre half marathon and achieving a PR on race day. But exactly what the taper looks like is different than marathon tapering – so here’s how to taper for a half marathon.
Granted, if you are racing a half marathon as tune-up race during a marathon training cycle, you will not taper as much. But if you are aiming for peak performance and a half marathon PR, tapering will help you reach that goal.
Why Taper for a Half Marathon?
Training is a process of stress-fatigue-adaptation. When you complete a long run or hard workouts such as a tempo run or interval workout, you apply a stimulus to your body. This stimulus stresses your body, thus leading to fatigue. In response to the fatigue, your body adapts positively to become stronger.
Half marathon training is a cumulative and progressive series of positive adaptations from repeated stimuli. For peak performance, you need to reduce your training and allow your body to fully recover and process the cumulative training load.
The taper is effective for multiple reasons. First, the taper allows your muscles to rest and recover, thus increasing muscular strength and power output. Rest also affects your circulatory system, leading to an increase in blood volume and a minor boost in your aerobic capacity (VO2max). Your body stores more glycogen. The combination of these physiological responses can result in a 2-3% improvement in performance – which is why you can hold race pace for so much longer on race day.
Yes, the taper requires rest – more rest than some runners are comfortable with. In the book Peak Performance, Steve Magness and Brad Stulberg frame rest as an active choice made my high-performing athletes: “They win major races not because they train harder than their competitors, but because they rest harder than their competitors.”
Tapering is not a sign of weakness, laziness, or not training hard enough. On the contrary, tapering allows you to show up mentally and physically fresh and ready to race at a maximum effort.
Tapering for the half marathon is an experiment. You will notice in the guidelines below wide ranges for when to do you last hard workout, how many miles to run, and more. Athletes who need more recovery will likely prefer lower mileage during their tapers than runners who might detrain quickly. You may find that how you taper changes throughout the seasons – during stressful periods of life, you may need a longer, sharper taper, while when you are at a high level of fitness, you may prefer a shorter, moderate taper.
How to Taper for a Half Marathon
10-14 Days Before: Your Peak Hard Workout
The exact duration of the taper depends on a variety of individual factors, including recovery rate, intensity of training, stress outside of running, and race goals. Some runners prefer a two-week taper before a half marathon; others thrive on a 10-day taper after their last hard workout.
Physiologically speaking, the full effects of a workout occur about 8-14 days later, depending on the type of workout. VO2max workouts require long recovery due to the intense nature of the workout, while tempo (threshold) runs, marathon or half marathon goal pace workouts, and long run take about 8-10 days to recover from.
Ideally, your peak hard workout before a half marathon is either a long run, threshold run, or a combination of the two. An example of a peak hard workout for an intermediate to experienced half marathoner is 2-4 sets 2-mile repeats at goal pace (based on fitness level) built into a long run of 10-13 miles. For beginner half marathoners, you do want to do your longest long run two weeks out from race day.
The Week Before (7-13 days before):
Remember, tapering isn’t just about reducing mileage. You also want to sharpen for your race, which means maintaining intensity during the first week of the taper. Since you are training for a half marathon, your hard workouts will be within the threshold zone – about 10K pace to half marathon pace – and therefore will not incur so much fatigue that they risk affecting your race day performance. For a goal half marathon, you can do your last tempo run about 8-10 days out from the race.
A majority of runners will find that maintaining a semblance of their normal training routine reduces the taper crazies. Scaled hard workouts will maintain that sense of routine, rather than completely changing up your training right when you are focusing on peak performance.
Meanwhile, your overall mileage will taper this week to about 60-80% of your peak mileage. This is a wide range because of individual variance and it may take a few races to find the optimal range for you. When in doubt, veer on the conservative end – it’s preferable to be slightly detrained than fatigued on race day. The reduction in mileage will affect your long run, reducing the distance from 13+ miles to 8-10 miles the weekend before the race.
During this time, you want to taper off strength training as well. You can cut it out altogether if you wish or stick to lighter weights and fewer reps of what you normally do. This is not the time for challenging strength workouts with heavy weights and plyometrics.
During race week, you will run significantly less mileage than your average weekly training mileage – about 40-50%, not including the race. You want to run enough to keep your legs loose and your mind calm while still receiving the benefits of extra rest.
Strength training should not be done in the days leading up to a half marathon. Mobility work and foam rolling can be done this week, but avoid any plyometrics, weight lifting, or other challenging strength workouts.
Since you are sharpening for peak performance, you want to include one race week workout about four or five days prior to your race. For a half marathon, this is ideally a short duration of running at goal pace, such as 2-3 miles either continuous or split up into intervals with short rest.
What does a half marathon taper actually look like in real life? This is a sample from my training log for my most recent half marathon. This is not a prescription of exactly what you should do, since your training, goals, fitness level, and recovery rate will all affect exactly how this week looks.
Peak Long Run, two weeks out: 4 x 2 miles at goal half marathon pace – 13 miles total (during a 41 mile week)
Week One of Taper: 33 miles, two hard workouts: 6 x 1K at 10K pace (11 days out), 10 miles with 4 miles at goal half marathon pace (9 days out)
Race Week: 19 miles (not including the race), one workout: 2 x 10 minutes at race pace (5 days out)
Want to know more about half marathon training? Check out these articles:
How to Pace Your Fastest Half Marathon
13 Ways You May Be Sabotaging Your Half Marathon
How to Run a Sub 1:45 Half Marathon
How to Recover After a Half Marathon
How do you taper for a half marathon?
What’s the hardest part about tapering for you?