Tapering for the Marathon or Half

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Woman Walking. Sean Justice/Stockbyte/Getty

Tapering is reducing your long mileage in the two weeks before a distance event, especially the marathon or half marathon. Whether you are running, doing a run/walk strategy, or walking, tapering is a the recommended plan to be ready for race day.

How to Do Tapering

The longest-mileage day in training for a marathon or half marathon should be done two to three weeks before the event. For a marathon, it's preferable if it's done three weeks before your race. That longest-mileage day should be 20 miles (30 kilometers) or a little more for a marathon and a full 13 (21 kilometers) miles for a half marathon.

After the longest-mileage day, you reduce your mileage to half of the race distance for your long-mileage day in the two weeks before the marathon or half marathon. For a marathon, that should be no more than 10-12 miles (16 to 19 kilometers). For the half marathon, no more than six miles (10 kilometers). See our mileage schedules for details.

Why Do You Taper for the Marathon or Half?

When you give your body two to three weeks to heal and repair after the longest mileage day your ensure you are in race-ready condition on race day. The long mileage day, especially the 20-mile day for the marathon, will put stress on your body and can cause damage. By taking two weeks at lower mileage, you give the body's energy systems a chance to fully restore. You allow the muscles to repair and rebuild.

The long-mileage day followed by the taper also gives time to fully heal up any foot blisters. When they are fully healed, they are also toughened and less likely to blister on race day.

Sleep During the Taper

Racers should try to get full nights of sleep during the tapering period. Your body does its best repair work during sleep. You've put in long mileage, now put in long pillow time so your body do the restorative work and build your muscles and energy systems. If you are going to be traveling to your race, try to arrive a more than one night in advance so you can get a couple of days of sleep and rest.

Crosstraining During the Taper

While reduced mileage may make you antsy to do more speed work or to work on strength training, it is wise to stay with moderate intensity exercise only and not work on building more muscle. The taper is needed to give your body a chance to rest and repair so it will be in top form on race day. Enjoy walking - especially if you are traveling to your race and there are sightseeing opportunities. Bike riding at an easy speed is also good for keeping your leg muscles in balance. It can also be a fun way to go touring if you are traveling.

What If I Missed My Long Mileage Day?

The crunch comes when you weren't able to get in your longest-mileage day two to three weeks before the race and you want to do it only a week beforehand. Say your longest day was only 16 miles for the marathon and you were never able to train at 18 or 20 miles, and now the marathon is coming up next weekend. This is risky. Your body won't have the time to fully heal and restore itself. Any blisters will still be only newly healed at best and easily ruptured again.

It may be wisest to just do a tapering mileage and hope for the best on race day. You might also see if you can downgrade to a shorter race distance, such as switching from the marathon to the half marathon. This is the best option if you never built up to a truly long mileage day. Let it be a lesson learned to plan better for next time.

Bosquet, Laurent; Monpetit, Jonathan; Arvisais, Denis; Mujika, Inigo: "Effects of Tapering on Performance: A Meta-Analysis. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 39(8):1358-1365, August 2007.