The Hardest Part of Training …. the Taper.

Posted: March 30, 2010 in Pace and Racing, Training
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US Capital, Washington, DC

Over the last 13 weeks we’ve laced up the Asics for 52 runs covering 414.55 miles.  That is roughly the same distance from Washington, DC to Columbia, SC where I spent my college years.  Over the same time period we have pedaled exactly 500 miles on the bike to reach this point … the Taper.

When you take a look at a really solid marathon training plan those final 3 weeks before race day appear to be “easy”.  The distance covered in each individual workout decreases, rest days increase and those weekend long runs shorten each week of the taper from 12 miles, down to 8 miles and then a scant 2 mile run the day before the marathon.

Well I’m here to tell you – for me, there is nothing “easy” about the taper.  In fact in many ways it is very hard for me – harder than 20-mile training runs and cycling workouts.  It also happens to be one of the most critical parts of the training plan.  It is to be respected.

University of South Carolina - Columbia, SC

Sure the mileage decreases over the final 3 weeks leading up to race day.  During my taper period I roll the mileage back to 75% of my peak training during the first week.  In week number two I roll the mileage back to 50%.  In the final week leading up to the race I will reduce my running even further down to just 25% of the distance I covered at the peak of my training.  The three weeks of the marathon taper do get progressively easier from a physical standpoint.  Mentally however, they get harder and harder.

I know from sharing stories with other runners that I am not alone.  There is something counterintuitive about reducing your training intensity  for such a long period of time leading up to race day in order to improve your performance.  After just a few days the familiar doubts start to creep in.  Won’t I lose fitness?  Won’t my aerobic capacity decrease?  If I’m not getting stronger does that mean I am getting weaker?  Maybe I should sneak in just one more long run, I mean – I’m feeling so great right now!  No, no, no, no, NO!

You see the problem is that despite all of the information to the contrary – when you start adding feelings of doubt to an already delicate psyche – even the most veteran marathoners begin to waver.  It takes a lot of discipline to stick to that reduced schedule and trust your training.  To borrow from a time-honored Texas colloquialism, “this is not my first rodeo”.  I know the reasons and I have read all the studies about how the taper period benefits not only marathon runners, but runners of all distances from the marathon to the 5K.  But for my own mental health – I read all of the studies and articles again just to reaffirm what I already know to be true.

The taper helps your fitness level.  The taper does nothing to decrease your aerobic capacity.  The taper in fact makes you stronger. 

These next 21 days are critical to running a strong race at Boston.  I know this to be true.  For all of you distance runners out there preparing for a race – say it with me one time …. the taper makes you stronger.

The primary purpose of the taper is to help your body repair itself from all of the difficult training that you have put it through over the past 13-15 weeks.  All of the tempo runs, hill work, long runs and speed work take their toll on your body.  One of the first studies on the topic I read back in 2006 when I was preparing my first marathon was found in the journal of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.  That study showed that levels of glycogen in a runner’s muscles, enzymes, antioxidants and even hormones that had been depleted by high-mileage training returned to their optimal levels after a three week taper.

The most impressive conclusion from the study to me was the fact that the muscle damage that occurs during sustained training is also repaired.  The study also showed that immune function and muscle strength improve during a three week taper period which reduces the odds that you will catch a cold or get injured just prior to race day.

The coup de grace in arguing in favor of the taper is that the average performance improvement made by the 50 subjects in the study was 3% – which translates to 5-10 minutes over the course of a marathon depending on your pace.  For me that would be about a 6 minute improvement.

So what is the big deal right?  Just dial back the miles and you are good to go.  Ah, if it were only that easy.  I have said more times that I can count that the marathon is a test of wills.  After a certain level of physical fitness is achieved – the race is far more mental than physical.  Even if you have run marathons in the past, confidence is a delicate thing.  Every race is different, every year is different and there are a lot of variables at play.  Most of them unfortunately are out of your control.  As runners – we don’t like that.

If I were simply leaving my house in Avery Ranch on April 19th for a 26.2 mile jaunt over the streets and trails of Austin that I have run hundreds and hundreds of times that would be one thing – but when I get off the bus in Hopkinton, MA it will be the first time I have ever seen the small New England Town.  What will the staging area be like?  Will there be enough bathrooms?  Will I have packed the right clothes for the race?  What will the temperatures be like?  The wind – will it be from the East in our face to Boston or at our backs?  The hills?  Am I ready for Heartbreak Hill?  Will my shin splint issue from December return?

See what happens as you allow an idle mind to wander?  The reduction in training brings a new challenge – staying mentally strong.  So for me I return to the studies, I read them and re-read them to comfort me.  I load up on the sleep I know I have been cheating my body of by getting up for 5:00 a.m. training runs for the past three months.  As we reach the final week before the race I pay even greater attention to my nutrition and hydration.  Then finally as race day approaches I study the course.  Every map, video and course layout I can get my hands on.  An edge – that’s what I’m looking for.  Any edge I can find.

Trust is what it becomes all about.  Trust the training, trust the plan, trust my strategy and then go kick some ass.

One of the best things about running two marathons in two weeks is that my second taper period won’t be so hard to deal with.  With only 13 days to recover between the finish of the Boston Marathon and the starter’s pistol at Pittsburgh I know I will be happy to be just be going down stairs forward and not backwards by the end of Boston week. 

(You Marathoners out there know what I’m talking about)

The following Sunday we’ll be back on the East Coast in Pittsburgh running a second marathon for my buddy Dom.  I will hardly have any time to think about a loss of fitness or a reduction in my training.  After all Boston is really just like another 20-mile training run with a 10K stuck on the end.  Besides we have some business to take care of in Pittsburgh.

Like kicking cancer’s ass 26.2 miles at a time.  Go Dom!

  1. You’ve touched upon exactly why the taper is so difficult… the mental side. Reduced time training definitely allows my mind additional time to “spin”. And that can drive you mad! I like your advice to review the research of why the taper is beneficial… at least then you’re focusing your mind on something productive instead of a million different “what if’s” that you could potentially conjure!

    • joerunfordom says:

      Hi Jill! Thanks so much for the visit! You are so right – that mental side is such a challenge – especially in the middle week. The first week you still have at least a 12-miler on the schedule which feels like a tough week – and race week is full of other “stress” items to fixate on. But that middle week is a killer – It’s important to keep the eye on the prize and realize you’ve done all the heavy lifting – it’s just time to rest and get “right” physically. Take good care Jill!

  2. Karla Gregg says:

    Very nice article Joe! I am tapering for my marathon now and elected to only take a 2 week taper partly because I can’t stand the feeling of ‘not doing enough’ Every single day I have to remind myself that I am cutting back and stop worrying about getting in the miles. It is tough! You didn’t touch on ‘intensity’ in your article. Have you been keeping up the intensity and just reducing mileage or have you backed off on your intensity as well?

    • joerunfordom says:

      Karla – thanks for the visit! Congrats on wrapping up the real tough part of your training – I hope you have a great race! You are so right about intensity – I was going there as well but wanted to keep the post short (for me!).

      That is a key part of a strong taper which is to not really reduce the intensity of your workouts – you are really just trying to reduce mileage and let your body rebound from all the tough miles – but not to “coast” through your workouts.

      I treat recovery runs as they are intended, pace runs as they are intended and do mix in hills and some speedwork in the first two weeks of the taper. The final week – just some easy miles to stay loose and get ready to race. I’ve found that formula works best for me. Thanks again for the visit! Hope you have some great race weather!

  3. So true, so true . . . the toughest part is not going for one last hard run!

    • joerunfordom says:

      Thanks for the visit UR and you are spot on – you always feel like you might be able to sneak in one really tough last training run and you risk injury in a big, big way. Just not worth it. Take care, J

  4. PT Girl says:

    Awesome blog! Great reminder for all runners out there!

  5. Brittany says:

    Great post! During my last taper for MCM (where I BQed), I went absolutely crazy. I got to the start line and thought for sure I wouldn’t do it because I took a 4-week taper after straining my achilles tendon and having to take 10 days off. Instead, I qualified by over 18 minutes. I averaged a good 20 seconds below what most of my training was at… and that was definitely from the awesome 4 weeks of rest. That, and I was so eager for a long run come race day that there was no way I wasn’t going to give it my all. See you in Boston!

    • joerunfordom says:

      Brittany – that is great stuff! That taper can really reap big rewards as long as you really hit the training plan hard and did all the speed, hill, pace and tempo work – and of course those long runs. Really going to try to “embrace the taper” this time around and enjoy every bit of the Boston experience – even these last few weeks of training. Best to you – see you in Hopkinton! (#7929)

  6. maslife says:

    Great post! Your observations are so true – as others have said. Good luck in Boston & then Pitt. And, *try* to enjoy the taper 😉

    • joerunfordom says:

      Thanks so much for the visit! I really appreciate the well wishes. I’m going to do my best to “keep it together” these next few weeks to race day. The exitement is definitely building! Take good care, Joe

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