Half Marathon Tapering – How To Prepare For Your Fastest Half

Natalie Cecconi
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What is Half Marathon Tapering?

For marathon training, tapering is the process of gradually decreasing the physical intensity of your training before a marathon. This gradual decrease gets your body ready to take things easier during the marathon.

If you run a half marathon, you probably have some tapering to do too. Half marathon tapering is a similar process, but with some slight adjustments in intensity and duration. You should run slightly slower and for lesser distance as compared to your regular workouts. It can also act as a mental break before the big event.

Tapering also lets your body recover from any fatigue that may have built up during your training, as well as any accumulated injuries.

The exact process of tapering depends on your half marathon goal. You may be training for a personal best or just trying to finish the race within the required time. Whatever your goal, however, you should taper before the actual day of the race.

Here’s a general how-to guide on half marathon tapering. It explains the right intensity and frequency for your workouts during the last few weeks leading up to the race.

Why Should I Taper for a Half Marathon?

Taper is one of the most misunderstood and feared aspects of marathon training. Hopefully, the following information will help you relax a bit.

Assuming that you have already completed the bulk of your training (including your long runs), your legs should be well-adapted to the training you have put them through. In addition, you should have some positive race experience under your belt as well.

It will be very easy to overdo it during your last few weeks before the race so it’s important to take a step back and not work your body as hard as you would during the base building phase.

You need to preserve your energy and not to burn out on the eve of the big day. Completely stopping training a few weeks before the race can be risky as well, so gradually reducing your mileage is the way to go.

Taper is the process of reducing the mileage in the three to four weeks leading up to your race to allow you to feel fresh on race day. You want to reduce your training load but not too much that training will do more harm than good.

The specific level of training to which you choose to reduce is up to you and your coach. Each runner needs to individuality tailor an appropriate taper plan.

What is best for you depends on a number of factors: such as your fitness, your overall racing experience, your training volume, etc.

How Do I Taper for a Half Marathon?

In most of the marathons I sign up for, I follow a taper period. My experience has been that it improves my race performance no matter what my target pace is.

I like to spend the last 6 days before my marathon running only once, so I get at least 15 hours before the race to recover from that single effort. In a half marathon, on any given weekend, there are at least 3 races so the weekend before the half marathon is when I run my last long run for 2 months.

The way I taper for a half marathon may not be the best way for you to taper and may not be the same as your training cycle. That doesn’t matter, as long as you’re following your “experts”, or your training plan or your race calendar, you’ll be well prepared to win the race.

Two Weeks Before Race

The taper starts. We have now gone through two tough weeks of training that resulted in our big personal best, and it’s now time to allow your body to recover.

Enter the taper stage where your mileage is decreased for one or two weeks before race day.

The taper period is designed to reduce the workload before the big event without having a negative impact on performance.

The last two weeks before you race, your mileage is decreased significantly, and you can cut out the harder and faster sessions designed to prepare for the half marathon event.

Instead of these hard sessions, you can replace them with easy runs (E), cross training (XT) and even rest days.

That’s it.

Easy runs are paced at about 65% of your aerobic capacity while you are in the E zone.

You should be able to carry on a conversation without being too breathless.

E runs help you to recover from the harder sessions and prepare your body for the race.

One Week Before Race

Once you have picked your half marathon, you will need to prepare yourself to race the distance.

My biggest recommendation when training is to have a strong week taper in the final week before the race.

Your taper should give you time to de-load, recover, and rest.

The last thing you want to do is over train and exhaust yourself one week before the race.

It is all about recovery so you are good enough to run at your very best come race day. It is this final week that will make the difference between your first place or the back of the pack finish.

Monitor how you feel. Are you recovering and getting stronger every day? Or do you feel tired, sluggish, and achy? Listen to your body and don't force yourself to run or feel pressured by your running partner or running group.

If you don't feel good, keep running light until your body recovers and you feel strong and ready for a steady 8 to 10 mile run.

If the weather is very hot and humid, you can extend your taper until the middle of the week or even for another week if you need it. Just taper down to a very light goal of one run a day with several days off.

Three Days Before Race

On the final run-up to race day, you will probably feel yourself getting excited. You are now eating healthier, doing more route-specific training, and noticing improvements.

At the same time, you may also notice a bit of anxiety starting to set in. These final few days can be tough, as you are starting to balance excitement with the sheer amount of work still left to do.

This is where active relaxation can really help. After a difficult run, like a long run, do some yoga to help you relax. Also, stick to rest days.

Often, it is in these final few days that the runners who have raced many times before get the most anxious.

What if your runner’s high doesn’t kick in and you finish slower than you expected? What if you finish last, even though you trained as hard as you could? Sometimes it’s tough to combat these doubts.

Be sure to end your workouts on a positive note and to use any negative aspects to improve your plan. Always remember that your training is specific to you, and you are better than you think you are.

One of my favorite quotes is from Nelson Mandela:

It always seems impossible until it is done.”

On race day, you will discover how true that is.

One Day Before Race

Now it is time to taper down. While you haven’t been running intensity workouts at this point, keep in mind that physical activity can increase your overall recovery time. So don’t expect to be able to go out for a three- to four-mile run and then perform a half marathon the following day.

Yes, you could get away with it for shorter distances, but anything longer than that and you may start to experience delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS). That soreness could keep you from running the next day and could impact the rest of your training.

So even though you are tapering for the race, it’s still important to pay attention to your recovery. That means more sleep and less exercise.

When doing workouts just before a race day, most runners prefer running intervals or shorter distance intense workouts.

Hill sprints are another great option since they can also help you work on your form and techniques.

But what type of workout you choose should be based on the type of race you are training for. For example, if you are training for a race that has very little elevation or no elevation, you don’t have to do hill sprints.

Also, be very careful if you are running these workout in hot weather or if you are using heavier clothes and shoes for these workouts.

Day of Race

Often runners get too excited on race day that they race too fast. The result is an exhausted runner that feels terrible for the rest of the day.

Most marathon runners taper (gradually reduce their training) the 3 weeks leading up to marathon race day, to conserve energy for the big day.

However, if you are confident that your runner’s fitness is well honed and race ready, slow down the last 2 weeks and run less, concentrating on easy runs to recover from the fast mileage built up in the first 10 weeks.

This will leave you fresher and fitter for the big day.

Three weeks out, cut down to 50% of weekly mileage, and ensure rest days after runs.

Two weeks out, drop to 30% of weekly mileage.

One week out, drop to just 20% mileage. Aim for a few easy runs, with most of the week taken over by walking and some light stretching or cross-training workouts.

For the last 3 days, plan for active recovery with some gentle walking and a little sports massage to loosen up the legs … without crossing the line into over-use.

Final Thoughts

If you are running your first half marathon, tapering may feel like a waste of training time. Why cover the same distance if you are just going to run a shorter distance the next week? It would seem like going through the same training twice.

However, half marathon training is a little different from training for shorter distances. To be ready for a half marathon, you need to prepare your body for the extra distance. You need to increase your running endurance, develop strength, and spend some time doing faster workouts to build speed and endurance.

You also need to practice optimizing your nutrition, hydration, and recovery techniques. These are all extremely important factors that will help you complete your half marathon and finish strong.

Therefore, even though you’re ultimately preparing for a different distance, the half marathon training will condition your body to handle the extra distance.

This is why you need to incorporate taper weeks into your training schedule. These weeks will help you fine tune your preparations and get yourself ready for the race.