Your body has been training hard these past few months, and now you’re nearing the end of your half marathon training plan. As race day approaches, you’ll notice your training plan has you cutting down the mileage in the two to three weeks leading up to the big day.
This wind-down process is called tapering and is a critical step in preparing your body for race day.
Tapering properly keeps your legs and mind fresh for race day while preventing overuse injuries. While you may be tempted to keep pushing your body until the moment you stand on the start line, don’t skip out on your taper weeks – your body will thank you at the finish line.
After months of training, scaling back on mileage as you draw closer to your race can feel very uncomfortable. But doing too much during your half marathon taper period can do more harm than good. Trying to do that one last workout could throw months of training out the window if you push yourself too hard and stumble into an injury.
Below, we’ll look at the best way to incorporate tapering into your half marathon training plan and what happens when you neglect to do so. Let’s get into it so you can finish your half marathon with pride and two functioning legs.
What is a Half Marathon Taper?
Half marathon taper is the two to three weeks before race day. During these weeks, your mileage should go down to allow your body to adequately rest and prepare to perform on race day.
The primary purpose of tapering is to give your body time to rest and recover without losing the progress you’ve made during training over the past few months. Letting your body recover, especially as a long-distance runner, is critical to protecting your body against injury and reaching optimal performance.
Simply, tapering properly before a race will enhance your performance. Don’t think of taper weeks as less time training; they’re more time spent recovering.
The bottom line is this: a good taper focuses on allowing your body the rest it needs to enhance your race day run, not hinder it.
How Long Should Your Taper Period for a Half Marathon Be?
Most half marathon training plans schedule a taper in the two weeks leading to your half marathon race day. Some runners opt for a longer taper period of three weeks, but that only applies to runners following a drawn-out 18+ week training plan or coming back from an injury.
Tapering less than two weeks is not advised – pushing your body to its maximum limits until the starting line on race day means it hasn’t been given the rest and recovery time it needs. Skipping tapering altogether puts you at a higher risk of injury and reduces your performance potential on race day.
Olympic Marathon runner, Matea Matošević, shared her inside scoop about how runners should approach their 2-week taper. She suggests that runners should reduce their training mileage by 30% two weeks from race day. The week preceding the race, runners should cut their mileage by 50%. During the two-week taper, athletes should maintain the same intensity level with shorter distances. This strategy has been proven to prime runners for a successful race day.
Matošević also suggests that runners refrain from strength training or weight-lifting exercises the week before race day. Eat the same amount of calories as during normal training volume. This will protect you from strength training injuries and muscle soreness and ensure your glycogen reserves are stocked-up and ready for the race.
A good rule of thumb is to keep your pre-race runs during the two-week taper to less than 30 minutes on weekday workouts and 45 minutes on the weekends (long runs). It’s fine if these workouts include cross-training, but avoid new or challenging activities that could cause injuries or strains.
What NOT To Do During a Half Marathon Taper
Most runners follow a training plan that lays out their long runs, tempo sessions, easy runs, and conditioning workouts as they prepare for race day to help with scheduling. Training plans are an excellent resource to help runners keep track of the workouts they should do to feel adequately prepared.
Here are some activities that you shouldn’t do during your taper weeks:
- Strength Training: Strength training, especially lower body training, is a hard no for taper weeks. Don’t overload your muscles with strenuous exercise that could hinder your body from recovering properly. Muscle fatigue won’t feel good as you make your way along the half marathon.
- Speed Workouts: Speed workouts immediately preceding your race is an easy way to injure, strain, or overuse your leg and glute muscles. Don’t. Do. It.
- Unfamiliar Exercises: Those two weeks before race day are not the appropriate time to try a new workout or type of exercise. You don’t know how incorporating a new exercise will impact your body’s recovery. You also make yourself susceptible to injury if you try something new the week before your half marathon.
- Try New Gear: The only thing worse than new gear (like running shoes) on race day is trying new equipment during your taper weeks. Don’t get fancy with new running shoes or a new sports gel; maintain your normal routine. If we’ve said it once, we’ve said it dozens of times: NOTHING NEW ON RACE DAY (and during your taper weeks)!
- Stop Altogether: The tricky part about tapering is running less while maintaining your fitness level. Taper weeks don’t equal “do nothing” weeks. If you hang up your running shoes in the final weeks of your training plan, believing you’re resting your legs, race day will be a rude awakening. Not running at all will throw off your fitness, pace, and endurance – and you just spent months building these!
The last thing you want on race day is to have already-sore muscles or feel sub-par. Your training plan has increased your fitness level, but feeling fatigued could hold you back from unleashing your running potential.
Race week is good for light work and short, easy runs. This keeps your legs moving and in tip-top shape without risking overuse pains or injuries. Incorporating stretching and mobilization exercises into your routine is also a great idea to keep your muscles primed and limber for the big event. Take care of your body, and it will take care of you.
What To Expect During Your Half Marathon Taper Weeks
No matter who you are or how long you’ve been running, we all face different challenges during training and on race day. You may experience all of these things or none of them. That being said, here are a few common phenomena you can expect during your taper weeks.
You have been training for race day for two to four months, and standing on the start line is quickly approaching. It’s totally normal to feel some pre-race butterflies, especially as you dial back your training when it may feel like you need to turn it up a notch.
Taking it easy for a few weeks will feel strange and counter-intuitive, but your taper will make you a stronger runner. And it will prepare your body more adequately for race day – you won’t have any niggles, aches, pains, strains, or fatigue.
With lower mileage and less time hitting the pavement, you’ll have extra time you don’t know what to do with. Take advantage of this time to rest (yes, actually rest) or do low-impact activities like cycling, swimming, or yoga if you’re feeling restless.
Take this time to prepare nutritious meals and snacks to keep your body nourished and thriving. Pack your race day bag, make a list, check the forecast, and prepare for bad weather – there are plenty of preparatory activities you can do that won’t stress your body.
This one may seem counterintuitive – running less makes you feel more tired? Yep. After weeks of pushing your body’s limits, your immune system has been operating in overdrive to keep up. You may even feel like you have a cold coming on; this is completely normal. Feeling some aches and pains or even symptoms resembling a cold is just the result of your immune system catching a breath. It’ll pass, don’t panic.
How to Cross The Finish Line with Confidence
So, you’ve powered through your long runs. You’ve aced your cross-training. You’ve shown grit through interval and tempo sessions. You’ve wrapped up your taper weeks. It’s time to lace up your running shoes for the last part of your training plan: RACE DAY!
Here’s how you can prepare your body and mind in the weeks and days leading up to the big day.
- Sleep: Sleep is important to recovery, especially in the weeks leading to your race. Prioritize getting 7 to 9 hours of sleep every night, and have a nap if you can. The day before your half marathon, you may have pre-race jitters or feel restless or afraid of missing your alarm in the morning, but try to get a good night’s sleep. Tossing and turning a bit is normal, so don’t overthink it!
- Eat: Nourish your body with healthy meals throughout your training, especially during tapering. Carb-ing up the night before your race doesn’t mean eating greasy food that will sit like a brick in your stomach. Prioritize quality carbohydrates like pasta or potato. You also need to eat a fueling, nourishing breakfast a few hours before the start of your race. This will give your body ample time to digest and store those carbohydrates and proteins as energy.
- Arrive Early: Give yourself some grace time. You don’t want to arrive at the start line scrambling to find where to leave your bag or join the line for the toilets. Arriving 90 minutes before the start time lets you set yourself up well. You’ll have plenty of time to do some brisk walking or gentle jogging to warm up, find your pacer (if you’re using one) and starting stall, and set up your music playlist.
- Pace Yourself: This one has more to do with race day than the weeks leading up to it, but it’s definitely worth practicing. Practice running at your anticipated pace on your long runs and hold it at that pace for as long as you can. Memorize the pace and learn what it feels like in your legs and breathing. Why? With adrenaline pumping and runners shoulder-to-shoulder at the start of the race, it’s easy to start too fast and then find yourself struggling through those final miles. Pace yourself from start to finish.
Each of these little things can greatly impact your overall performance on the day. The last thing you want is to put in 16+ weeks of training only to push too hard at the end and get injured.
Trust the taper. Respect the taper.
See more: What does a half marathon do to your body?
Taper For Success
Tapering is highly individual and you’ll learn exactly what your body needs with experience. If this isn’t your first rodeo, remember what tapering looked like for your previous half marathon, and pivot based on your previous experiences.
If this is your first half marathon, take notes! Maybe you’ll do things differently next time based on how this race goes. Perhaps you’ll nail it the first time round and know what to do next time. Either way, you’ll learn what works (or doesn’t work) for you.