The Half Marathon Taper: How to Scale Back and Run a Faster Race

Every week of your half marathon training is crucial, but in the final two weeks, something really important needs to happen: the notorious taper. The half marathon taper involves scaling back on your daily mileage and load in order to let your body (and mind) rest before the big day.

When done properly, it sets you up to go after your goal race time, says decorated runner Becky Wade Firth, running coach and author of Run the World: My 3,500-Mile Journey Through Running Cultures Around the Globe

When runners reduce their training volume, most see an improvement right after in performance without any compromisation to their VO2max, according to a 2018 meta-analysis in International Journal of Sports Science. What’s more, research suggests that recreational runners’ race-day performance would benefit from following a more disciplined taper strategy.

Any solid half marathon training plan will have a taper period built into it already. But it’s still smart for you to understand why your mileage drops down right before your race. And if you’re crafting your own training plan, it’s extra important you understand everything about the half marathon taper.

Two runners on an easy run, possibly during their half marathon taper
Photo by Geronimo Giqueaux on Unsplash

What Is the Half Marathon Taper? 

A half marathon taper period is a strategic part of your race preparation. Any solid half marathon training plan will have you ease up on mileage the two to three weeks before your race — this is called a taper. 

When you dial back your mileage two or three weeks before a race, you can rest your body and allow your muscles time to recover before you go big. To do this, you’ll decrease your weekly mileage and running volume, as well as cutting back on any strength training regiment, Firth says.

Why You Should Taper Before a Half Marathon

“To run your best, you need to be both well-conditioned and also rested from that conditioning,” Firth explains. Your plan has rest days each week for this reason, and the taper is like an extended rest day. 

Most every sport leverages the science of a taper — and has the benefits to prove it.  Research shows powerlifters who reduce their training volume and then rest for a short time see improvements in their strength and power. Amateur soccer players who did a two-week taper during training saw an increase in muscle power and acceleration, and less perceived stress, reports a 202 study in The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research.

For runners, it’s also crucial: In a 2021 study in Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, 1500m runners scaled back on their running volume and interval intensity for seven days before a time trial and saw an improvement in their running performance. A 2023 meta-analysis in PLoS One found huge improvements in runners who tapered before a time trial on how quickly it took them to reach exhaustion.

Here’s why: 

When training for a half marathon, your mileage and intensity build up to a peak. This peak is where your muscles and tendons are under the most strain and stress due to cumulative load. The rest days built into your training schedule help everything repair regularly. But taking a longer period of time off allows for a deeper level of muscle repair. It also allows your nervous system, hormones, and other biological systems to enter rest-and-digest mode. Together, this helps to prime you to push harder once you return to activity.

The Right Way to Taper for a Half Marathon

How long before your half you should taper, and what exactly you should do during that two- to three-week period, depends on:

  • How long you’ve been training
  • Your fitness level
  • Your longest run distance
  • Your history with injuries
  • Your body’s individual recovery needs. 

How Long Should the Taper Be?

A two-week taper is pretty standard for a half marathon. “But some people respond better to longer tapers, up to 3 weeks, and others respond better to shorter ones,” Firth says. She adds that, personally, she’s always done well with a seven- to 10-day taper that involves a steep decline in volume in the final few days, rather than a drawn-out one over a longer period.

When you should hit your longest run depends on the length of your half marathon training plan (e.g., an 8-week training plan vs. a 20-week training plan). Generally, though, Firth says your longest run should be around two to three weeks out from race day. “You’ll get a confidence boost from covering the distance close to race day, but you’ll still have time to recover for the big day,” she adds.

Stretching is an essential part to any half marathon taper training program.
Photo by Alora Griffiths on Unsplash

How to Reduce Your Mileage During the Taper   

While there’s no perfect formula, most taper plans follow the rule of reducing your weekly mileage by 20% to 30% of your peak week’s mileage.

Here’s what that means: 

Let’s say your highest mileage week was 20 miles. 

In the first week of your taper, you would reduce that by four miles, so 16 miles. That 16-mile week should include:

  • Mostly easy runs
  • Very selective speed work (for example, a tempo run at marathon pace)
  • A long run

The second week of your taper (or, the week before your race), you’d cut your mileage down to 14 miles. For most runners, this week should consist of:

  • Mostly of easy runs
  • At least one quality session where you hit half marathon pace (or faster) in short bursts, like mile repeats
  • No tempo runs
  • Optional: An extra rest day, if that feels more recharging to you than cutting each run down just a bit. 

Nutrition and Hydration While Tapering 

Despite not running a full load, your nutrition and hydration are still crucial. In fact, this is the time to really dial it in.

No matter how well you’ve fueled during race training, the prolonged effort and intensity leave your glycogen stores depleted, Firth says. Your glycogen stores are a form of glucose (think, sugar and carbs readily accessible for our muscles) that acts as energy in our body. 

Use the taper to replenish your stores. For these final one to two weeks, focus on:

  • Eating sufficient protein 
  • Eating a ton of complex carbohydrates, namely vegetables like sweet potato, fruits, rice, whole grains and legumes
  • Hydrating with water and electrolytes.

Firth adds that in the final days before the race, start:

  • Increasing your carbohydrate intake even more 
  • Whittling down the fatty and fibrous foods you’re eating (not entirely, because some of those are necessary for balance and satiety, but enough to help you avoid unhelpful stomach distress during the race)

Some runners gain a pound or three during the taper, which is often the result of water retention. While you don’t want to overdo your fueling as you cut back in volume, a couple extra pounds are nothing to stress about. They signal that your body is well fueled and ready to race hard over a long distance, Firth explains.

What Not to Do During the Taper

You do not want to mess up your hard work during the taper. So keep it simple, trust the training, and don’t do the following:

  1. Don’t cross train to make up for the miles you’re missing. This is not the time to add in high intensity training or even gentle cycling, Firth says. If you’re used to cross training, you don’t have to cut it out completely during the taper, but you should include it in your total training volume and decrease your cross training volume alongside your running, she adds. You want to save your energy for the big race, after all.
  2. Strength train with purpose. If you haven’t been strength training, now is not the time to try it out, Firth says. But if you’ve been doing strength work on a regular basis, you can keep up with it as you taper — so long as it makes you feel good. Just make sure to back off the week or two leading into the race so as to not detract from your performance. 
  3. Don’t think you are losing fitness. Many first-time half marathoners think if they take a break from training, they’ll lose all the gains they worked so hard for. Remember, there is a method to the taper madness. And it will actually help you perform better than you ever did during training. 
  4. Don’t skip the taper. It’s tempting to power through the last two weeks. Maybe you think you need to run the whole race distance “just to be sure.” We’ve all been there, but it’s important to trust the plan and your training. 


How Many Days Before a Half Marathon Should I Stop Running?

You should stop running one to two days before your half marathon. Some runners like doing their last run two days out, then resting, while others feel better doing a light run the day before. Pro runners like Becky Wade Firth prefer to take the day off two days before the race, and then hit a light 3 or 4 mile run the day before a race.

How Long Does It Take to Taper for a Half Marathon? 

It typically takes one to two weeks to taper for a half marathon. How long you’ve been training for, how fit you are, and your history of injury all play into this timeline.

When Should You Run Your Last Long Run Before a Half Marathon?

Your last true long run should fall two to three weeks before race day, according to Firth. But during your half marathon taper, you will still run somewhat long distances, like six or seven miles a week before your race. 

What Should You Eat During Your Taper?

The taper is not the time to experiment with your nutrition, says Firth. Try to eat similarly during the last couple weeks as you have during the training block, with a shifting increase in carbohydrates and decrease in fat and fiber in the final days.

What Should I Do 2 Weeks Before a Half Marathon? 

One to two weeks before a half marathon, you should:
-Taper your mileage
-Go over the race course map and note any landmarks, hills, water stops, spectator spots, and anything else you feel is important
-Find out where to park or the shuttle schedule
-Lay out your race essentials, including fuel, water bottle, sunscreen, shoes, socks, and race bib.
-Relax! You’re ready and you need rest.

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