Say the word “taper” to a group of runners, and you will receive an array of 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 is a guaranteed performance enhancer. Tapering can make the difference between running a mediocre half marathon and achieving a PR on race day. The exact approach is different than how to taper for a marathon – so here’s how to taper for a half marathon.
If you are racing a half marathon as tune-up race during a marathon training cycle, you will not taper as much. However, 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 workout, you apply a stimulus to your body. This stimulus stresses your body, thus leading to fatigue. In response to fatigue, your body adapts positively to become stronger. However, this positive adaptation only occurs if recovery is adequate for the stress applied.
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 lets your body fully recover from training – so that you are fully adapted and optimally fit on race day.
The taper is effective for multiple reasons. First, the taper allows your muscles to rest and recover. That sense of freshness allows you to push harder on race day. 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 due to decreased training load. The combination of these physiological responses can result in a 2-3% improvement in performance. The taper allows you to reach peak performance 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 maximum effort.
Tapering for the half marathon is highly individualized. Yes, all runners should taper for a half marathon. However, that taper will look different based on fitness, training load, experience, and other variables. 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 your time as a runner. For example, during stressful periods of life, you may need a longer, sharper 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. Moderate-intensity workouts like threshold runs, goal-pace workouts, and long runs take about 8-10 days to recover from.
If you start tapering too soon (three weeks out from your half marathon), you may actually have a less effective taper. A 2007 meta-analysis found that two week tapers were more effective than three week tapers. We see this practice reflected in elite level training; a 2022 review in Sports Medicine concluded that world-class runners only taper for approximately 10 days before an event.
Ideally, your peak hard workout before a half marathon is either a long run, a threshold run, or a combination of the two. Experienced runners may do a long run workout two weeks out from their race. 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):
Tapering isn’t just about reducing mileage. You want to maintain neuromuscular and cardiovascular fitness, which means including intensity during the first week of the taper. (If you did not do hard workouts in your half marathon training, do not add them in during the taper).
Since you are training for a half marathon, your hard workouts will be within the threshold zone (moderately hard) during the peak weeks of training. You want to continue that same intensity in the first week of the taper, just at a slightly reduced volume. For example, if the peak workout was 40-45 min at half marathon effort, then a taper workout would be 20-25 min of threshold running split across intervals.
A majority of runners will find that maintaining a semblance of their normal training routine reduces the taper crazies and random aches and pain. (Here’s why you get those aches in the taper!) 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 60-70% of your peak mileage. This is a wide range because of individual variance. 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 shorten your long run, reducing the distance from 13-16 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. Generally, I recommend that runners remove strength training about 7-10 days before their half marathon. You can even remove strength training sooner. A 2020 study in Sports found that the runners maintained their strength adaptations for four weeks after cessation of their resistance training routine.
During race week, you will run significantly less mileage than your average weekly training mileage – about 40-50% of daily peak volume, not including the race. For example, if your normal daily run was 7-8 miles, you would run 3-4 miles instead. This percentage may be slightly different if you ran low mileage. You want to run enough to keep your legs loose while ensuring optimal freshness on race day.
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 x 6-8 minutes at half marathon effort (with 3 min rest in between).
Real-Life Examples of a Half Marathon Taper
What does a half marathon taper actually look like in real life? The below outline some sample scenarios. This is not a prescription of exactly what you should do. Your training, goals, fitness level, and recovery rate will all affect exactly how this week looks.
Beginner Sample Taper
- Peak Week, two weeks out: 12-13 mile long run; 30 miles total
- Taper Week 1: 8-9 mile long run; 22 miles total
- Race Week: 12 miles (not including the race)
Intermediate Sample Taper (from my training from the Colorado Half Marathon)
- Peak Week, two weeks out: 30 min tempo followed by 5 x 1 min hard/1 min recovery jog; 14 mile long run; 40 miles total for the week
- Taper Week 1: 12/8/4 min progressing from threshold to 10K effort (11 days out), 9 mile long run; 30 mile week
- Race Week: 18 miles (not including the race), one workout: 2 x 8 minutes at race pace (5 days out)
PR Plan Sample Taper (from my training for a 1:34 PR)
- Peak Week, two weeks out: 5 x 7 minutes at 45-min race effort; long run with 4 x 15 min at half marathon effort (13 miles total; 41 mile week)
- Taper Week 1: 6 x 4 min at 10K pace (11 days out), 10 miles with ~30 min at goal half marathon pace (9 days out); 33 mile week
- 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 Set a Half Marathon Goal (Plus a Half Marathon Pace Chart)
What to Eat Before a Half Marathon
How to Fuel During a Half Marathon
How to Recover After a Half Marathon