Taper is what we do in the final two to three weeks prior to a big race. Correctly doing a half marathon taper could improve your race performance by up to 5.6% and your time to fatigue by 22%!
Holy SMOKES, what else do I need to say to convince you that this is a must do part of training.
Runners often get nervous to cut down the volume of their runs and try to skip taper thinking that they’ll stay in better shape by continuing to work hard.
Half marathon taper is the time where your body ADAPTS to all of the hard work, mileage and speed sessions that you’ve been doing. If you skip out on tapering, you are going in to the race with your body in a deficit, rather than in top form.
Tapering should be a welcome relief after hitting your peak weak mileage and intensity. Instead, the sudden free time sends some runners in to a tailspin.
It’s the time when your mind plays tricks. You start to have some little aches as the body fully recovers which are terrifying. You start to question if you did enough. And of course you don’t know what do you do with this abundant free time?!
OMG, slow down and let’s chat.
When it comes to tapering truth is that reducing your mileage is critical not only for a full recovery before your race, but also for achieving optimal performance.
In this article, you’ll learn everything you need to know about the half marathon taper and I’ll also answer all your pressing questions when it comes to this important training element.
What is Tapering for a Half Marathon? And Why Is It Important?
Tapering is the process of progressively decreasing the volume of your training in preparation for a race. It’s an essential part of every training plan (including the marathon, 10K and 5K)
You must be wondering though, why is a half marathon taper important and why should I do it? Is it as important for a half marathon as it is for a marathon?
When you cut back on the number of miles you run, your muscles can repair, and your glycogen stores can return to normal. This is important for absorbing your training and getting those race-day PRs!
But don’t confuse tapering with taking a break and resting.
Some rest is part of the process of ‘tapering.’ But, if you only entirely rest for the weeks before your half marathon, you’ll lose important biological changes you made during your training.
During a taper, levels of muscle glycogen, enzymes, antioxidants, hormones, and other things that are depleted by a lot of exercise return to normal.
It means that on race day, you should feel bursting with energy because the body is relaxed and primed to run. You’ve decreased the odds that you will show up over-trained and unable to get the most out of yourself.
Over a few weeks, exhausted muscles have a chance to rebuild stronger, and micro-tears that were formed during training can heal.
This is based on a review of 50 studies that were published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise in 2003.
Another research published in 2014 found that tapering can also improve the function of fast-twitch muscle fibers, which can lead to faster race times.
Benefits of Half Marathon Taper
Most studies are done specifically around the marathon, but we know that the benefits apply to every distance.
A 2007 study showed that tapering provided up to a 5.6% performance improvement! Meanwhile another study showed that it increased time to fatigue by up to 22%. So yes the benefits are very, very real.
The top five main goals of marathon tapering are to:
- Increasing muscle glycogen to ensure they return to normal and are loaded with fuel for race day
- Reducing the risk of overtraining right before a race
- Minimizing any stress on your mind and body, which allows you to be fresher.
- Increasing muscle recovery and reducing muscle fatigue
- Improving the function of fast-twitch muscle fibers to assist in faster race times
When Should You Start Tapering for a Half Marathon?
As discussed in peak week training, traditional training plans used to call for a taper of 3 to sometimes even 4 weeks.
The ideal length is a little different for each runner based upon fatigue levels, training style and experience. After running for over 20 years and coaching since 2012, I’ve found that the two week taper works well for the majority of people.
It provides enough time for the body to recover without being so much time that runners start to feel flat or anxious about the cutback.
However, there are plenty of runners who prefer a 3 week taper and design it to follow a very specific plan. Week 3 might actually be a drop in mileage, but two weeks pre-race they still do their biggest hardest long run and then continue dropping mileage.
2 or 3 Week Half Marathon Taper
A new study in 2021 of marathon runners, in Frontiers Sports and Active Living, showed that a three week marathon taper provided more race day benefits. This was in fact a large study of over 158,000 runners. Of course there was a previous 2007 study that said two weeks.
However, what the study really proved to many of us coaches was:
- You need a structured taper
- Higher mileage runners often do better with the longer taper
- Many runners try a long taper, but don’t follow it very well
- The long taper may actually involve a lower week on week 3, but still your longest run 2 weeks out
How Do You Taper for a Half Marathon?
As noted above a structured taper program leads to the best race day results. Following are the key steps to take for your best taper. You’ll note this doesn’t say stop running and sit on the couch! It doesn’t say start eating every carb in sight.
Be smart and you’ll reap the rewards on race day.
- Keep your schedule the same, run the same number of days, foam roll, etc
- Decreasing total mileage by the notes below
- Including quality speedwork
- Reduce any heavy lifting the two weeks before your race
- Eliminate all weights the week of your race (you can keep some core work)
- Learning to carbohydrate load correctly
- Doing a final shakeout run
How Should I Cut My Mileage While Tapering for a half Marathon?
While tapering, you want to cut back on your volume just enough to help you recover and adapt, but not so much that you feel tired.
- Based on studies you should reduce your overall mileage by 40-60%.
- Week 1 of taper is a reduction of 40% from your highest volume week
- Week 2 of taper is a reduction of up to 60% from your highest volume week
- What we lose in distance, we make up for by continuing with speed workouts. Just reduced accordingly to total mileage reductions.
How Should I Do Speedwork While Tapering for a Half Marathon?
When tapering for a half marathon, you should continue to incorporate speed workouts. The goal is to maintain muscle tension, so your legs don’t feel flat on race day.
The key is to ensure that these speed sessions maintain the same level of intensity, but they should be shorter in duration.
A few examples:
- Long run might include 3 x 1 mile at half marathon pace in a 7 mile run (if you had previously done something like 6 or 7 miles at half marathon pace)
- During the week you might do 5 x 1 minute at 5K pace (if you had previously done 10-12 reps at that pace)
- Running strides at the end of a couple runs
Sample Two-Week Half Marathon Tapering Plan
A two-week taper is a blip in your overall training, which means you’ve got to use the time wisely. Here’s a little breakdown of how what a 2-week half marathon taper leading up to race week can look like:
Day 1 – Complete recovery from your longest/hardest run.
Day 2 – Get your pre-race massage scheduled, at least 6 days before. Ladder run with time at HMP, 10K pace, 5K pace
Day 3 – Head out for a medium distance EASY run. Do your hip strength exercises.
Day 4 – Time for another short run with 5 strides to finish. Do the IT Band Lunge Matrix.
Day 5 – Slow it all down with some restorative yoga.
Day 6 – Short easy run and a final test run of what to eat before your race. More hip exercises.
Day 7 – Long run (maybe 8 miles total with 1-2 miles at goal pace)
Day 8 – Complete recovery day. Plan out meals that are anti-inflammatory for the week.
Day 9 – Enjoy a walk, a hike, a yoga flow or bike ride. Keep it easy and fun. Create your race day plan (see below)
Day 10 – A short run with 5 x 1 min at 5K pace.. Great day to assess your goals and set your mantra.
Day 11 – Another good day for restorative yoga and fully planning your race outfit and needs (checklist here)
Day 12 – Shakeout run can be done today or tomorrow
Day 13 – Head to the expo, stay off your feet, hydrate with electrolytes, relax!
Day 14 – Race day!!
This is time to de-stress to the max and take care of your body.Have your best race ever with these taper tips! #bibchat #running Click To Tweet
What to Expect During Taper
“Taper madness” coined by long time runners refers to the days leading up to the race when your brain starts to play tricks on you and with longer tapers where you feel completely out of whack due to the massive mileage drop.
Suddenly, things that have never once bothered you in training will hurt. Why are you feeling your big toe in your favorite shoes? Why is your knee tingling? Why did you get a Rudolph sized zit on your nose?!
There are some specific reasons why you might notice changes in your body during this time.
Why Do I Feel Sick While Tapering?
It’s very common to develop a cold in the days before a race. Science suggests this is because the body is no longer adrenaline focused pushing you through weeks of training and thus the immune system kicks back into action because it’s no longer being suppressed.
Don’t fret, nearly everyone finds that in these two weeks if they focus on recovery they are ready to rock and roll race morning. I say that these colds are the body’s way of ensuring we actually follow our taper plan!!
Learn more about the runner’s flu >>
Why Am I Hungrier?
Don’t stress about calories during race taper.
Yes, you’re running less and technically needless, but hunger pains also decrease after that first week of lower mileage. Initially your body has time to realize that it could finally catch up to your calorie needs and you’re hungry.
If you don’t go carbo loading crazy for all two weeks and focus on choosing foods to help your body recover, you’ll be just fine.
You want to show up on race day well fueled, not sluggish from restricting your food.
Focus on eating when hungry and getting in lots of vegetables for the nutrients and anti-inflammatory recovery properties.
Race Day Nerves Will Increase
Nerves actually prime your brain and get you focused on the task at hand, so learn to harness them for your benefit.
- Channel the energy to drive you to hit a brand new distance or pace.
- Recognize it as adrenaline and know it’s a good thing, that’s what pushes you just a bit harder than in training.
- Trust that once the race starts you’ll be glad for that extra energy boost of adrenaline.
- Meditate. Ok I know I said harness the nerves, but if you’re ruminating all week then sitting down for a minute just to breathe is going to help you get a grip on what really matters. You may have trained hard, but it is just a race.
Race Day Pre-Planning
Another way to tackle nerves is to do some planning, give you brain something tangible to think about. Here are a few key things which will also help on race morning:
- Checkout the parking situation or know where you can be dropped off
- Plan a specific spot for spectators during and after the race
- If traveling pack your pre-race food and double check all your must haves (here is a great half marathon checklist)
- Lay out all of your gear and pin on the race bib
All right, now you fully understand the half marathon taper benefits and process. It’s up to you to make the most of it!!
Additional Half Marathon Training Tips:
- 18 Things I Wish I’d Known Before my First Half Marathon
- Couch to Half Marathon Training Plan
- Half Marathon Pace Chart
- Half Marathon Fueling Strategy
- How Far Should I Run Before a Half Marthon
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