Time to Chill
Whew! Congrats! You’ve made it! You’ve logged in the miles over the past 15 weeks or so, slowly building up your endurance. You’ve run your Yassos, nailed your tempos, and conquered those hills. You have now reached “THE TAPER” – those final few weeks before race day that appear, well, downright EASY! Your weekly distances decrease, rest days increase, and your weekend long runs literally seem to dwindle down to fun run distances. Piece of cake right? Ahhhh… if it were only that simple! Talk to any long distance runner and you will hear the same thing: the word taper almost whispered with an ominous mixture of relief as well as dread. Truth is there is nothing EASY about taper time. Your taper commands just as much respect as your long runs, repeats and tempo workouts. Disrespect your taper and your race day performance will suffer the consequences!
Love it or hate it, the taper is one of the most important phases of your training program. Would you ever think of doing a marathon without logging in a few looong 18-22 mile runs? Would you ever plan on striving for a personal record without doing those killer speed or tempo workouts? No, you wouldn’t! Likewise, you should never plan on toeing the line without giving your body the proper rest it needs before race day. Completing any “event of significant distance” (ESD) requires a strategic and properly executed plan. Depending on your own individual goals and abilities, this plan includes a build up of endurance, increasing speeds, paced & tempo runs, and REST to produce the physiological changes the body needs in order to perform to it’s maximum potential without injury.
A peer-review of over 50 scientific studies by the International Journal of Sports Medicine found conclusive evidence that a properly executed taper can significantly improve a runner’s race day performance. Studies revealed improvements in performance by as much as 16% with most studies showing an average 3 – 5% improvement. What does this mean exactly and how does it relate to you? Consider this: at a 5% improvement, a 3:30 marathon can become a 3:19 marathon – just by tapering properly. Hmmmmm…. So, you mean, just by resting more and training less in the weeks ahead of race day, your clock time can improve by 5%? The short answer is: YES!
Runners and in particular marathon runners are driven people (some call it obsessive but I’ll choose to call it driven). We are the same people who did last minute cramming in order to ace that test back in college. Always thinking it’s better to do a bit more or work a bit harder in order to achieve the best results. Because of this mindset, it goes completely against our grain to significantly cut back on our training just weeks before the big event. The key then is to overcome our natural inclinations by understanding the scientific principles associated with training. One of the most interesting facts about fitness training is that the body’s adaptations to training occur during the recovery periods and not during the training itself!
Studies have shown there are a number of physiological changes that occur during the taper phase of training that most likely correlate to an enhancement in race day performance.
- Blood: Among the most compelling are changes in the characteristics of the blood. Increases in total blood volume and more specifically in red blood cell volume lead to greater oxygen carrying capability. Since oxygen is the fuel source for our muscles working in an aerobic capacity, the more oxygen we can deliver to our muscles, the more work can be produced. This leads to better endurance, less fatigue, and subsequently it is presumed, improved performance.
- Muscle: In addition to changes in blood characteristics, tapering also produces effects at the cellular level within the muscles themselves. Muscle glycogen stores normally depleted by weeks of hard training are replenished allowing for further increases in fuel production on race day. Increased activity of aerobic enzymes enhances aerobic metabolism. As a result of these cellular changes, muscular strength and power are also improved. Blood draws have also found a decrease in the level of creatine kinase. Creatine kinase is an indirect indicator of muscle damage. Lower levels of this blood marker during the taper, reflect muscle recovery after weeks of damage brought on by training.
- Immune: Immunologic studies reveal that during the taper, certain antioxidant levels return to normal following weeks of training. This results in a strengthening of your immune system and a greater ability to ward off illness before your race.
Still not convinced? Is there some small part of you that believes you will LOSE fitness during your taper? Consider this: One’s fitness is determined by their maximal oxygen uptake or VO2max. VO2max is widely accepted as the single best measure of cardiovascular fitness and maximal aerobic power. VO2max is recorded in a lab during a physical exertion stress test (treadmill or cycle) whereby the concentrations of oxygen and carbon dioxide are measured as workloads increase. VO2 max is reached when oxygen consumption remains at steady state despite an increase in workload. Studies have found that the taper phase of training either increases or maintains an athletes maximum oxygen consumption. What this means is that a properly executed taper WILL NOT cause you to lose fitness and may in fact improve your fitness for race day!
Understanding the physiologic benefits of tapering is only the first step. Now you’ve got to put it into practice. The steps below are based on general tapering principles for a marathon distance.
How Long Should You Taper: Studies show most marathon runners should taper for a minimum of 2 weeks with 3 weeks being optimal. Too short of a taper will leave you tired and flat at the start line, while too long of a taper could result in decreased fitness levels. Three weeks before race day is a crucial time as marathoners tend to do too much this week because the marathon seems a long way off. Listen to your body during this time. If you are feeling particularly fatigued, allow yourself another day of rest.
How Should You Reduce Your Training: The key to effective tapering is to substantially decrease mileage while maintaining intensity. By reducing your mileage you are decreasing the accumulated fatigue brought on by training. By maintaining the intensity effort during your runs, you maintain fitness levels. Very often, marathoners make the mistake of decreasing both their mileage and intensity which can lead to decreased VO2max. Your taper will be much more effective if you intersperse harder efforts within the recovery trend. During your speed workouts, for example, the number of 1/2 mile repeats will decrease during your taper, but the pace you run them will remain the same as it was during your hard training phase. The general guidelines for reducing your mileage during the taper are:
- 3rd week premarathon: taper total mileage 20-25%
- 2nd week premarathon: taper total mileage 40%
- Marathon week (6 days prior): taper total mileage 60%
Ok, so 3 weeks, reduce mileage by 20% per week while keeping the intensity up. Benefits include improvements in key blood levels, muscle glycogen stores, and immunity without a loss in fitness – got it! Seems rational. Seems easy enough. So why is the taper still so difficult? The difficulty lies not in the actual running itself but in the psychological effects the taper has on the runner. Call them taper traps, or better yet taper-tantrums (thank you Runner’s World), the taper is 3 full weeks of self imposed mental games brought on by the inability to get your full endorphin fix! The reduction in training brings a new challenge – staying mentally strong. Being aware of what’s in store, you’ll be better able to handle your taper and reach the start line with fresh legs AND a positive attitude!
TRAP #1: Substituting cross training for running:Since I am not running as much, I’ll just bike or do the elliptical to stay in shape. Remember, during your taper your fitness level does not decline! Reducing your training volume includes cross training and lifting weights, too. If you do additional workouts during your taper, your body will not be able to properly repair damaged tissues and you will find yourself fatigued at the starting line.
TRAP #2: Freaking out about minor aches and pains:Stepped out of bed this morning and felt a pain in your left knee? Jogged across the parking lot and felt a twinge in your calf? Climbed the basement steps and felt totally winded? Don’t be too concerned if you start to feel minor aches and pains during your taper. It’s totally normal! Often, these are signs that your body is adapting to the physiological changes inherent during the taper phase.
TRAP #3: Making up for lost workouts: Never try to make up for lost time due to an injury or illness during your taper. By this time any gains in fitness from training have already been realized. Attempting to make up for lost miles or workouts will just leave you fatigued at the start line.
TRAP #4: Second guessing yourself: STAY THE COURSE, FOLLOW THE PLAN! Four months ago you chose a marathon training plan and followed it to the letter. Don’t second guess your strategy now! Stay the course and follow your plan all the way to the start line. While resting, it’s easy to think “if I can only get in one more long run, one more tempo maybe I’ll be even better!” An idle mind is a dangerous thing and allowed to wander you’ll drive yourself crazy with doubt, uncertainty, and that single question, “have I done enough?” Remember, fitness gains from training have already been maximized and a properly executed taper can improve race day performance by 3-5% on average. A single workout, on the other hand will give you less than a 1% improvement in performance!
TRAP #5: Nutrition, counting calories & the scale: An in depth discussion of proper nutrition during training and your taper is beyond the scope of this article. There are as many schools of thought on this subject as there are types of running sneakers. Years ago the thought was complete carbohydrate depletion followed by a period of intense carbohydrate loading. More recently those guidelines have been questioned. The prevailing thoughts on the subject of nutrition during your taper are this: 1. eat how you’ve been eating during your training; 2. eat healthily in order to support muscle and system repair; 3. include a moderate increase in carbohydrates but not at the expense of protein and fat intake; 4. stay hydrated. Most experts recommend a balance of approximately 60-percent carbohydrates, 20-percent protein and 20- percent fat. Keep it healthy, keep it in proportion, don’t try anything new. Resist the urge to get on the scale! Eat when hungry and leave it at that.
TRAP #6: Feeling moody & irritable: My husband and kids always know when I am in taper mode. I am moody, irritable and everyone around me sort of steers clear and avoids eye contact. Whether it’s because of a decrease in endorphins due to a reduction in physical exercise, the fact that I cannot sleep because I am simply not tired, or the internal struggles every runner faces just prior to a big event attached to a personal goal – there is no doubt that taper time is a trying time! Strategies to get you through your taper without being nicknamed the Wicked Witch (or worse) include: surrounding yourself with only positive people and staying away from those who tend to increase your anxiety levels, renting funny movies to lighten your mood or reading a good book to occupy your mind. If you are the type that likes to be prepared, review your race strategy, plan your race day morning, review your goals. Reviewing your training plan to see just how far you’ve come and how hard you’ve worked will reaffirm your belief in yourself and get you excited about race day.
TRAP #7: Weary legs: A few years ago, I was back in Central Park – my old stomping grounds, it was a beautiful crisp fall day and I was so excited to go for my run. An easy 5 miler, 10 days before the Steamtown Marathon. I have never felt so crummy during a run as I did that day! What the heck? I’m supposed to feel rested right? This is supposed to be easy right? Well, my legs felt like concrete, the gently rolling hills felt like enormous mountains and I even had to walk at one point! Scientific evidence suggestions that what I was feeling was caused by the body’s natural repair and recovery process, and totally normal – but boy did I feel deflated! Ten days later, I ran a PR. Go figure – just know – if it happens to you, you’re not the only one!
TRAP #8: Recovery Rebound: On the flip side, this past year I experienced the total opposite – recovery rebound. Six days before my ultramarathon – I felt like a caged tiger – I was ready to race and it was hard to hold back! It took every ounce of mental fortitude to stay within my paces and adhere to the training principles of proper tapering. Race day came and my legs were fresh – carrying me to a second place finish. Had I let it rip before race day, I may have had a very different outcome. Race day is the day for maximum effort – don’t leave it all out there days before when it doesnt really count!
Avoiding these traps and understanding the science of the taper will help you not only survive but absolutely nail this active rest phase of your training. During your buildup phase of training its very easy to measure improvement – more miles, increased endurance, faster paces, and increased speeds. The thing that makes the taper so difficult is that there are no outward signs of improvement! But rest assured it’s there – an integral part of your training program designed to yield you the best result come race day! So go ahead and chill – it’s good for you!
Now get out there and taper! Go to your Happy Pace!