Posts Tagged ‘Marathon Taper’

There are a lot of marathoners out there who lament the taper.

The period of time before a race where the athlete cuts back their mileage and begins the process of allowing the body which has been taxed near its limits during training to repair itself.

As 8 mile runs become 4 miles, and 18 or 20 mile long runs are now only 10 miles, athletes start to have idle time and idle minds to fixate on things.

Instead of embracing the taper and realizing that it is a crucial part of marathon training, one that will help the athlete run to the best of their abilities and fitness levels on race day, they instead stress out.

They let their minds wander and worry.  Question their training and their fitness.  Wonder if they are losing the level of fitness they worked so hard to achieve over the previous 16-18 weeks.

Perhaps they should just go out for one more really hard workout.  One that will make them KNOW that they are ready.

Guess what?  It doesn’t work.

There is not a single workout that can be done within 14 days of the race that will improve your level of fitness for race day.

Not a single one.

You are in a mode where you can either maintain your fitness level or you can harm it.  But you cannot improve it.  Fact.

The taper period is designed to allow you to run just enough to stay sharp, with just enough up-tempo work – a mile here, two miles there – to remind your body that you are preparing to RACE, not simply run a race.

But the workload is lightened, recovery is more balanced and your body checks itself into the shop for a tune-up and an overhaul.  It’s like getting new spark plugs, a lube job and a fresh set of tires.

The engine is the same – but the car is going to simply run better.  Run faster.

I have come to enjoy the taper over the years.  My first few times around the block I was like a lot of runners.  I hated the taper.  I just wanted to race already.

Three weeks was too long for me, so I changed things up for NYC and went with a two-week taper, running my final 20-miler two weeks before race day.

In the case of Boston being run on a Monday, it was in fact 15 days before.

These next two weeks are critical as I start to peak for race day.  I will still run on my usual run days, but I will run shorter.  I will keep the rhythm that I have built up over these last 20 weeks, but will instead run easy during the early parts of my runs, gradually increasing effort and finish with a couple of miles at Marathon goal pace.

This will keep my legs “alive”, but allow for the freshening process to occur.

Sure the nerves will build starting next week.  Each day will become one day closer to “Boston”.  I will start packing next Wednesday, check the weather forecasts several times a day.  Fly on Friday, hit the expo on Saturday and spend Sunday nervously counting the hours until it is time for my pre-race dinner.

I won’t sleep much on Sunday night, thinking about the course, the weather, my pace strategy and the Newton Hills.  Those damn Newton Hills.

But Monday will arrive soon enough with its own set of challenges.

A bus ride out to Hopkinton, Breakfast in the athletes village behind the Local High School, timing my porta-potty break(s) and amaze myself at how I can possibly have to go to the bathroom 5 or 6 times in two hours while I can fly from Houston to New York and not have to go more than once.

Amazing.

But when the air force fighter planes fly overhead and the horn sounds I will be in my element.  Everything will go to black.

I will be a marathoner running in the greatest marathon in the world.

My feet will feel like they are hardly touching the ground when I run across the painted starting line on Main Street.  26.2 miles later will be another line painted on Boylston, the only difference will be the word FINISH.

It’s what happens in the middle of those two lines that matters.

The taper?  Nothing at all to fear.

10 days to go.  We’re just about perfect.

My approach to training for the NYC Marathon was very similar to my ramp up to Austin this past February.  I felt as if the balance of endurance training delivered through longer runs on Wednesdays and true long runs each Sunday with speed work through racing and hill repeats struck the proper balance.

I worked on varying my pace on Tempo runs and recovery runs kept my legs working hard but relatively “fresh” for my key workouts.

The one change I felt was necessary however was with respect to the marathon taper period.  Traditionally I had followed the generally accepted principle that the taper period should last 3 weeks from the final long (20+ mile) run leading up to race day.

Each week during the taper the total weekly mileage is cut down from 100% of your maximum mileage the week of your final long run down to 75% two weeks out, 50% one week before the race and then 25% during race week.

I have to preface my next statement by saying that every runner is different.  What might work well for one athlete does not deliver the same results for another.  Popular running plans are designed for the masses.  They are trying to address the needs of thousands and thousands of runners who have different experience levels, time in the sport, injury history as well as goals and aspirations.

It is tough to address all of those individual areas with a “one size fits all” approach.

The primary goal of any marathon training plan should be to deliver a well-trained athlete to the starting line, but even more importantly should be to deliver a healthy one.  The taper period allows the athlete to “rebound” from a  tough training cycle and recover before a max-effort performance in the marathon, but it does just as much good by allowing the nicks, bumps and bruises that accumulate over the course of 18-20 weeks time to heal.

As I reflected on my races in Pittsburgh, Boston and Austin I felt as if I had peaked about a week too early with a three-week taper.  Two weeks after my final long run I felt super-strong on my final 10-12 mile run one week before the marathon.

My legs felt strong, my turnover felt smooth and easy and I was chomping at the bit to race.

One week later I felt a little bit “stale” for lack of a better term.  My legs were a bit heavier, I had gained a couple of pounds that I was lugging around due to the decreased mileage and I feel that I would have been better off racing a week earlier.

So for New York I decided to shorten my taper period to just 14 days.  I removed essentially the “first week” of the traditional taper where mileage is reduced to just 75% of a runner’s peak mileage.

I simply cut my mileage to 50% during the first week of the taper, then 25% leading up to race day.  This added a 5th 20-22 mile long run to my training period which was another added benefit to the revised schedule, but I hoped that the major improvement would come on race morning.  I was hoping to feel very refreshed but not so far removed from my final endurance workout.

Like any “test” it is hard to measure the impact of a change in strategy or approach if you have more than one variable at work.

In a true test, I would have run identical mileage and workouts throughout the training cycle and only changed the taper period.  I of course did not do that as I also increased my mileage over the course of the training cycle by 8-10%.

That said, I can only go on the way my final shake-out run the morning before the marathon felt as well as the race itself.  Simply put, the two-week taper period won out hands down.

As I left my hotel to run up to the finish line in Central Park my legs felt simply tremendous.  I ran smooth and easy without feeling like I was working hard or pushing the least bit.  The 2.3 mile run came in right at 7:10 min./mile pace.

My pace over the course of the marathon the following day:  7:11 min./mile pace.

The result was a new Marathon PR by just under 7:00 minutes in a time of 3:08:09 on a challenging course.

As I put the finishing touches on my training plan for the 116th Boston Marathon this April I will continue to tweak the balance of my long runs, tempo workouts, hill repeats and pace workouts.

One change I will not be making however will be to my taper period. 

Two weeks appears to be the right balance between recovery and preparation for this marathoner.  In about 4 weeks we will begin our next cycle for our next and more than likely final dance with the marathon in Boston, changing over full-time to chase our triathlon dreams and aspirations.

This spring at Boston I plan on going out in style.

My final long run is now in the books.
Coaches and experts cast me dirty looks.

You ran 20 miles two weeks before race day?
Surely you’re crazy.  Better to let sleeping dogs lay.

I say three weeks is too long to put up my shoes.
I needed my fifth 20 Miler, I’m paying my dues.

I’m chasing Three Hours this time and not one second longer.
Through all five boroughs, I need to be stronger.

Stronger than Philly, Pittsburgh and Boston.
Stronger Than even my PR in Austin.

I’ve got 14 days left to dial things down.
Cut back my mileage, rest up and not frown.

It will be amazing how quickly this time shall pass.
On Sunday, November 6th I’m going to kick ass.

Peaking vs. Tapering

When it comes to marathon training, as is the case with most things in life, there are a few things that you hear so often you feel as if they certainly must be facts not merely opinion.

Don’t play with matches.

Don’t run with scissors

Wait 30 minutes to swim after eating.

You need to run a long run of 20 miles to prepare for the marathon.

These may be good ideas, but I would not say that they are necessarily facts.

Another one that will hear runners and coaches alike talk about when preparing for an “Arace, whether it is a marathon, half-marathon, 10K or timed mile – is that to really race your best you need to “Taper”.

The Taper, specific to the marathon is defined by a reduced training load in the final weeks leading up to race day.

Many training plans, marathoners and coaches feel that a three week taper period is appropriate.  Some, more in the minority feel that two weeks is the best formula.

The idea of the taper is that after a tough 14-15 week training period, your body has been beaten down.  Muscles, tendons and joints have been placed under an increasingly heavy load and need time to repair.

By reducing your weekly mileage and your training intensity (speed of your workouts, hill work etc.) those muscles will repair themselves and go through an adaptation process making you stronger.

At the end of your taper, you will feel better than you have in many weeks and will be primed for your best performance on race day.

A typical three week taper would reduce your weekly mileage from its peak four weeks prior to the event to 75% three weeks away from race day, 50% two weeks away and 25% in the final days leading up to the marathon itself.

A 60 mile a week at its peak training plan would feature a three week taper with mileage totals of:

3 Weeks out:  45 miles
2 Weeks out:  30 miles
Race Week:  15 miles

As positive as the taper period is physically, it can wreak havoc on the marathoner mentally.

After weeks of hard training the reduction in miles and the intensity of those miles makes the marathoner feel “weak” Negative thoughts begin to creep into the mind of the runner, which when preparing for the marathon is a huge problem.

The delicate psyche as an A race approaches is something that even the most talented and experienced runners exhibit.  Instead of focusing on the positive training runs and performances, the limited amount of hard work being put in makes the runner lose that feeling.  Those endorphins that come from really nailing a tough workout are lacking and not just for a day or two, but repeatedly day after day for as many as 21 days.

It is sometimes tough to “get right” again before race day.

Last year preparing for Austin I felt like I was ready to go after the first two weeks of my taper.  On February 13th, I was locked and loaded and mentally recharged.  Let me at that course I thought on my easy 8 mile run.

I still had 7 more days to go until the marathon.

Too long.

So this marathon training cycle I am going to replace the “Taper” period with my “Peaking” period.  I am not going to look at those final weeks leading up to race day as the time frame where I heal up, but rather when my body begins the process of building itself up for the greatest single run day of my life.

Instead of taking three weeks to “Peak” I am going to reduce that time to just two weeks.

After next weekend’s Rock n’ Roll Half-Marathon in Denver I will be 4 weeks away from the gun in New York.

My next two weeks will feature 60 mile+ training weeks with a 21 mile run 3 weeks away from race Sunday and a final 20 miler 2 weeks out.

I will then taper reduce my workload to 75% and a very easy final week leading up to race day.

I will be thinking about “Peaking” for the race in New York and send those final 14 days getting physically and mentally “right” which I believe will put this marathoner in the starting corral with their best chance for a best ever race.

5 weeks and 4 days to go.  We’ve got two more race Sundays – this week’s IBM Classic and next weekend’s Denver Half Marathon.

Two more weeks of tough training, followed by two weeks of Peaking for NYC.

It will be here before I know it.  Just like the final 6.2 miles in the marathon – right now, it”s time to go to work.

It seems like every marathon training cycle there is a run that stands out above all others.

A run where after the first few strides I know that this is going to be a tough one.  But for whatever reason instead of shrinking from it or changing my expectations for that workout I secretly enjoy it.

Whether it is a tough hill run, a 20-mile plus long run, a cold day or an unusually hot one – the run becomes more than just a square to cross off on my training schedule.  The entire training period becomes about that “one run”.

Today was that day.

When I put together this training plan for Austin more than 5 months ago, February 9th was an unsuspecting entry.

6.2 Mile Run – 7:15 pace

A run that I have executed literally close to a thousand times before.

But 11 days from the starting line of the Austin Marathon, somebody upstairs had a little surprise for me and decided to change the degree of difficulty just a bit to keep things interesting. 

I knew that rain was falling as the alarm clock sprung to life at 5:00 a.m. as I could hear it hitting the windows in the bedroom.  I had already laid out my running cap last night as the forecast was calling for rain.  No big deal I thought.

The temperature display on my weather station read 44 degrees.  So I hopped into my running shorts, a long sleeve running shirt, light gloves and was ready to roll.  I fired up the headlamp and blazed out the front door falling quickly into 7:15 min./mile effort.

I had just read the final chapter of Again to Carthage before leaving the house and was full of marathoner pride.  After this one, just 6 runs remain out of the 95 training runs on the road to Austin. 

Only 26 training miles would be left ironically, before I raced the 26.2 miles at Austin on February 20th.

As I turned right onto Lisa Anne Drive less than 3/10 of a mile from my home it hit me like a ton of bricks.

Wind.

Not a gentle breeze or a rustling movement of air.  But a sustained wind that had to be blowing more than 20 miles an hour.

I caught myself smiling briefly as I made the 7/10 of a mile climb to the top of the hill marking the first mile of my run and thought:

“So, it’s going to be like this today ….”

I picked my way to the top of the hill and made a left turn into the Water’s Edge neighborhood and was hit by an even stronger wind gust.

My shirt was whipping behind me and even though I was now headed downhill to the lowest part of my course I felt like I was standing still.

The wind was getting stronger and the temperature was definitely falling.  All I could think about was how I wished I had worn my tights.

Mile three led me onto the trail system and I splashed out onto the crushed granite of the Brushy Creek Trail.  Cold standing water hit my toes and I knew that this was going to be a cold one.

I had opted for my lightweight running gloves as they did not soak up a lot of water like my heavier pairs, but I was soon regretting this decision also.  I pulled my fingers in from the ends of my gloves and balled my fists up to help them share my body heat.  My fingers started to warm up slightly, but they were by no means “toasty”.

As I reached the top of the hill that leads up and over the dam I knew that I was going to be coming back out from the shelter of the trees.  I would be more than 50 feet above the lake below and back in the wind.

Boom, it hit me right in the chest and blew cold rain into my eyes as I made the turn.  8/10 of a mile straight into the wind and then I would be able to make the wide turn to head back towards home.

I scattered 7 deer as I came off of the dam, two large bucks and 5 doe.  Normally they are still in the middle of the park at this time of morning and I can only see their eyes lit up from my headlamp, but with the changing weather, they too were not quite sure what to make of the conditions.

Once I made the last turn it was just a little over 2 miles back to the house.  I could feel the wind helping me along, wanting to lengthen my stride and start churning my legs faster and faster.

On any other morning I would have let them go.  Dropped the hammer a bit and turned some miles in the 6:40’s.

But with 11 days to go before race day and firmly in the middle of my taper, that was not only unnecessary, it would be reckless and foolish.

I tapped the breaks a bit and just locked into my cruising pace.

The last two miles were wet, cold, windy and tough.

I cherished both of them.  None of this is supposed to be easy I thought.  This is exactly the type of run I needed.  I needed to be reminded that there are going to be difficult stretches on February 20th.  I will need to stay in the moment, run the mile that I am on and not start to feel sorry for myself or fixate on anything negative.  Not worry about how far I have traveled to that point or how much farther I have to go. 

When the time comes I will simply have to “Cowboy Up”.

By the time I had returned the temperature had dropped more than 12 degrees in just 45 minutes.  The front of my shirt and the fingers of my gloves were frozen stiff with ice.

I hit the driveway at the end of 10 Kilometers in 44:52 – 7:14 min./mile pace.

Just :01 seconds per mile off of goal.

We’re ready.

Some of the trail we brought home with us on Wednesday

I’m sure you can remember the scene.

Forrest and Bubba have just met Lieutenant Dan at Fort Platoon.

After some small talk about being from Alabama and learning about the importance of changing their socks every time the soldiers stop on a hike, Lieutenant Dan shares the following pearl of wisdom:

“Two standing orders in this platoon.  One.  Take good care of your feet.  Two, try not to do anything stupid.  Like getting yourself killed.”

To which Forrest replies:

“I sure hope I don’t let him down.”

A marathoner is pretty fanatical about taking care of their feet.  So that one to me is really a no-brainer.

But the second standing order is one that I am going to take very, very seriously over the next 18 days and 20 hours and change leading up to the start of the Austin Marathon as of this morning.

After 83 Training runs covering 758 miles, two 5K’s, one 10K, one 10-Mile Race and two half-marathons every last one of them a PR at that distance, I have made it through to the other side.

All that stands between me and race day is the three-week taper.

After this mornings easy 6.2 mile run in some not so “easy” weather battling cold temperatures, rain, 20+ mph winds, I have exactly 95.80 miles left to run.  Less than 100 miles before I come through the chute in Austin with what I hope will be my best ever Marathon time.

The taper is an interesting period for a distance runner.  The principle is pretty straightforward.

To peak for your “A” race, the runner will gradually start dialing back their weekly mileage leading up to race day.  This will allow any of the aches, bumps and bruises that have accumulated during the training cycle to heal, as well as rejuvenate those leg muscles that have been broken down during training.

Any “loss” in fitness by reducing your training during this period is vastly overcompensated by gains in returning to full health.

No mile that I have run since this training cycle started on October 4th will feel as smooth, easy and powerful as the first mile leading out onto the Austin Marathon course.  I will be primed and ready to rock and roll at 7:00 a.m. on February 20th.

Sounds great right?

Well, the physical benefits of the taper come at some physical and emotional costs.  There is no such thing as a free-lunch when it comes to the marathon. 

Every inch gained is an inch you have to fight over, under, around or through something to get there.

Physically some strange things start to happen.  During the first week of the taper I will cut my mileage from its peak of approximately 60 miles to about 75% or just 40 miles.  The following week I will cut that mileage down another 25% to about 30 miles, just 50% of what we were running at our peak.

During race week, an even greater reduction with a short 3 mile run on Tuesday, 4 easy miles on Wednesday and a 2 mile shakeout the morning before the marathon.

While your workload is reduced your body is working hard to repair all of the small micro-tears that your muscles have experienced during training.  This causes some odd “feelings” to occur.  Marathoners will refer to these as phantom pains, they are little aches, jabs and sometimes sharp pains that may strike a calf muscle, an ankle or a knee.

The first time you experience these pains they can really shake your confidence. 

“How can I possibly be getting an injury now?  I only have X Days to race day!”

The good news is of course that you are not injured.  It is just your body healing itself.

Which leads to the second challenge of the taper, the mental tricks that begin to occur.

Doubt.  Perhaps the single worst thing a marathoner can have prior to race day.

“Did I train hard enough?”

“Could I have done more?”

“Maybe I should just go out and run one more really long run, just to prove to myself that I am ready ….”

No, no, no, no, NO!

There is absolutely nothing that can be gained at this point.  All of the hard work has already been put in.  It is simply time to let the body heal and load up for race day.

But as you decrease the amount of running that you are doing, the endorphins that have become such a daily source of energy and confidence are decreasing as well.

You begin to feel like you are not in the shape you were just two weeks ago.  You may even be gaining a bit of weight as you reduce your running miles, so eating smart becomes important to maintain your race weight.

Stress starts to build and doubt creeps in.  It happens to everyone.

But this time I know that I have trained well.

I know that with the exception of those two miles I had to drop two Sunday’s ago while I battled through 18 miles with the stomach flu, I ran ever single workout on the schedule.  I did not miss a single day.  Not a single workout.  In fact I tacked on a mile here and a mile there to my runs and even ran my first 22 miler as part of my marathon training.

I’m as ready as I am going to be.  So these next three weeks I will let the magical healing powers of the taper do their thing.  I will run the remaining 12 workouts as they were written more than 20 weeks ago.

No more, no less.

And most importantly, I’m going to try my best not to do anything stupid and get ready to run a great, great race in Dom’s memory.

I sure hope I don’t let him down.

It started this morning.  As I was staring into the bathroom mirror with shaving cream on my face, I had the first taper-induced, paranoia driven thoughts with Boston now just 10 days away.  To be honest, I’m surprised it took this long to get here.  I feel like I did a pretty good job making it all the way through the first 11 days of the Taper period before my psyche started to give out on me a bit.

As I mentioned last week, this taper stuff can drive you crazy.  It will be three full weeks, plus one additional tortuous day when we reach Patriot’s Day in Boston since my final 20-mile training run.  22 days is a long time to be without that “next big workout” to look forward to on the training schedule.  It is during this period of relative “down time” that the mind starts to wander a bit and doubt begins to creep in.

In preparing for Philly in 2006 I remember being very worried that my troublesome IT Band pain that I experienced during the latter stages of my training would return and ruin my marathon debut.  As it turned out, I was right to be worried as the pain arrived at the 14 mile mark and I struggled through the final 12 miles in significant pain to a 3:58:08 in my first marathon.

Philadelphia Marathon - Painful First Race

Last year preparing for Pittsburgh I felt very good about my training and my health but wondered if I had done enough speed work and tempo work to hold that 7:37/mile pace I needed to achieve my Boston time of 3:20:59.  It turned out that all of my worries were for naught as I raced a beautiful race at Pittsburgh and posted a 3:17:43 qualifying time.

Pittsburgh - Boston Qualifier

So what about this year?  A lot of people are asking me if I am worried about the race at Pittsburgh on May 2nd and if I feel ready to run two marathons just 13 days apart.  To be honest, I don’t really have any time right now to be worried about Pittsburgh.  I’ve found that when you start looking too far ahead in life you are asking for trouble.

Boston is the first step in completing Run for Dom and that is the step I am focusing on right now.  Most of the housekeeping is in order as racing more than 1,500 miles away from home definitely complicates things.  There are plane tickets to buy, hotel rooms to secure, restaurant reservations to make, post-race massage appointments to schedule.  There are pre and post race meet-ups to organize, packing, transportation, nutritional needs – all which need to be arranged for and addressed prior to race day.  I feel like I’ve done a good job managing those tasks to date and do not have any of those “to-do list” items hanging over my head adding to my stress level.

So right now it is more about my training.  We made some fairly significant changes to our training schedule this cycle to prepare for two marathons in just under two weeks.  We also were battling back from our first ever bout with shin splints which delayed our training start by 14 days this year.  To compensate for those two variables our traditional 18-week training program became a 16 week program to Boston, 18-weeks to Pittsburgh.  I decided to treat the Boston Marathon much like I would my 3rd and final “20-mile” training run.

In addition to take some pressure off of my shin, I dropped from 5 running days per week to 4, while adding 3 cycling workouts each week as cross-training.  Something I had never done before.  I stuck to my 3 time per week strength training schedule with my personal trainer and felt that all of that hard work would get us to Hopkinton, MA on April 19th trained, rested and ready to go.

With only a handful of workouts remaining it looks as if I will be able to run every mile of my training plan with no exceptions, cycle every mile and lift every weight.  Crunch every abdominal muscle, squat every repetition at the gym and push-up every …. well …. push-up.

So why all of the worries?  The above seems like a perfectly good plan right?  Well, I’m worried because that’s what you do the week before a marathon.  I find myself asking all of the same questions.  Did I run enough?  Did I rest enough?  Am I eating right?  Did I push hard enough at the gym?

To sum it up – could I have done more? That is the question I am really nibbling around the edges of.  Could I have done anything more to prepare to race well for Dom.  After all, it’s not Run for Joe – there is an entirely different element at stake here as I find myself running for a cause.  There are added responsibilities and a higher commitment level.  For lack of a better word it’s just “different” this time around.  I may not be the most aware person out there, but even I am smart enough to know that much.

Training Ground

As I look back through my training log I can’t really point to any workouts where I mailed it in.  I ran hills when I needed to.  I hit my goals during my tempo runs and my intervals.  I pushed hard during my fast-finish long runs and ran plenty of miles at race pace.

Wednesday’s workout called for my final “hard run” before really shutting it down and simply running easy through the remainder of my taper period.  It is a mistake to run hard too close to race day and risk injury – so I make certain my final “Ricky Bobby” run is my last 10K over 10 days prior to race day.

I really rocked Wednesday’s 6-mile run in 40:59 (6:49 pace) with splits of 7:00, 6:41, 7:03, 6:59, 6:47 and 6:35 finishing with my fastest single mile of my training period.  I feel good, I feel ready, I feel like I can go out and run my race at Boston.  We’ll see what that translates to as far as a time – I am very reluctant to put a hard goal in place until the weather forecast becomes a bit clearer.  Temperatures and winds will play a major role at Boston – perhaps as much as 10 minutes +/- on race day.  Hopefully the training hours I put in will be enough.

I think the first time I will know for sure will be coming down from the top of Heartbreak Hill exiting mile 21.  I’ll know then.  I’ll know exactly how much I have left in the tank and whether we did enough over these past 16 weeks preparing for Boston. 

Pittsburgh?  Plenty of time to obsess about that race.  I’ll have 12 days after Boston to go through all of this one more time.  Someone mentioned to me that I will be flying more than 6,300 miles in two weeks to run just 52.4.  They didn’t seem to get it. 

It’s not about the 52.4 miles; it’s about what happens over those 52.4 miles.  I think they’ll get it when it’s over.