Mark asks: I was wondering if I should run a half marathon during my taper period. It is two weeks out from my first marathon and the distance is equal with the training plan I am following. Is this a good idea?
In my opinion, nope, not a good idea to run a half marathon during your taper period. This is especially true since you are getting ready for your very first marathon. Truth be told, I would not recommend racing a half marathon two weeks out from a marathon to most veteran marathoners.
Even when mileage-wise on paper it looks like a half marathon should work, here’s why you shouldn’t do it: The taper period is all about recovery so you are prepared for the demands of your upcoming race. Taper plans are specifically designed to maintain your fitness level while also allowing your body much needed recovery time. This is a very delicate balance.
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Tapering allows muscle glycogen stores to return to peak levels. Metabolic enzymes, antioxidants, and various hormones return to their normal levels; muscles, tendons, ligaments, and other connective tissues repair and strengthen. Your body is actually very busy during the taper, even though you feel like you are being a couch potato.
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To accomplish this process, taper plans are usually two to four weeks in length, with the most popular taper plan being three weeks. On a three-week plan, you are likely to see a 10 to 14 mile run planned two weeks out before a marathon. (Find your perfect RW half marathon training plan here.)
A training run of that distance is vastly different than a race of that distance, primarily because of the intensity level. When on a training run, we listen to our bodies. We have the option to cut it short or slow down if necessary, but we are not likely to do that in a race. In races, we tend to push on regardless of how we may feel. The higher intensity of a race takes a toll on our body, and it’s hard to know exactly what that extracts from us and how to restore and replenish our reserves in time for the marathon.
It would be great if we had a “gas gauge” on our bodies like our cars. If we could look at a dashboard and see the level of our own gas tanks, we would know our "fuel level." It’s possible to feel great when our tank may be only half full. We feel fine—until we don’t and subsequently find ourselves hitting the wall at mile 14 or 16 in our marathon. Only then do we realize our gas gauge was too low for the race and it’s too late to do much about it.
The goal of tapering is to give yourself adequate recovery time for your marathon. Keep your primary goal forefront in your mind and find another half marathon to target after you have fully recovered from your marathon.