Tuesday, September 20, 2011

How to Survive The "Taper"

If this was a legitimate running website and I knew everything about everything, I could tell you to run less, rest more and leave it at that.  Keep things simple and everything will work out fine.  Instead, my aim is to provide you with everything you need to know about this topic based on MY experiences.  Hopefully this will help first time marathon runners whilst acting as a reference for those that are more experienced.

There are many questions surrounding the marathon taper. Why should I taper? How long should I taper? Do I completely or partially rest? Is cross training a viable option to maintain fitness?

Tapering is simple and easy, yet should not be ignored. Firstly, lets define the taper. Surely the dictionary definition will be sufficient:

....the period of decreased running milage before a marathon

In my view, the dictionary definition outlines what a taper is, but fails to give an explanation. Thus, the need for an updated definition:
the period of training, usually three weeks before a marathon, when runners cut significant distance from their training, along with changing eating patterns, ensuring adequate rest, preparing psychologically and modifying the time length and intensity to cater your individual needs
However, after stating that tapering is simple and easy it would be wrong for me to leave it at this. For the purpose of simplifying the above and acting as a quick reference point, see the tapering formula:
successful tapering = proper timing + decreased running + modified nutrition + adequate rest + mental preparation + customization + self control
Many runners see the taper as boring and frustrating.   I know I do.  So many things go through my mind I honestly feel at times that I am going cuckoo for cocoa puffs.

A more logical way to train for a marathon would be to gradually increase your training over a few months and run the race without tapering.  This approach works when you only consider fitness.  During marathon training your muscle power diminishes, glycogen stores are depleted and overall muscle fatigue is accumulated.  The tapering period is simply to minimize the negative effects of a long distance training schedule.

Other benefits of tapering include:
  • lactic acid production reduced
  • restoration of enzymes and antioxidants
  • rebalancing of hormones
  • strengthening immune system
The taper period will be what makes your physically strong on race day.  Many runners have no problems with the physical aspect of the taper.  Resisting the urge to run, staying positive and being calm is where many runners struggle.

Choosing a suitable tapering period can be tough, given the amount of varying suggestions.  Generally, advise will tell you that 1 week is not enough and more than 3 weeks is unnecessary.  My training schedules feature a 3 week tapering period, however more experienced runners are encouraged to find what works best for themselves.  Up until you have completed a few marathons, I would not recommend experimenting with a period less than 3 weeks.  I also am not a fan of a 4 week taper.  I have never done a 4 week taper and never will.  You lose enough during 3, let alone a whole other week.  I would be too scared that I just wouldn't be ready.  People do them though...just not me.

Running in the taper period should be no different than ordinary training.  Some runners increase the speed of their workouts to offset the decrease in distance, either intentionally or unintentionally.  Be mindful of this as running faster will defeat the purpose of tapering and will not allow your body to recover.

Listen to your body. Don’t worry about cutting short or skipping a workout if you feel tired or sluggish.  The taper is all about recovering from the effects of a long distance training schedule.  Remember that its not the training done in the taper that will help you on the marathon day.  Rather, the gradual buildup of distance over the last few months that will get you across the finish line.

Running less than your training schedule specifies is fine, however don’t take this advice in reverse.  Try not to run any more than your training schedule says, even if you feel rested and recovered.  Sticking to your training schedule, being mindful of the speed in which you run your workouts and listening to your body are the key components of a successful taper.

It sounds crazy to decrease your training three weeks out from a marathon.  Runners struggle more psychologically in the tapering period than they do physically.  To add to this, a side effect of decreased running is that you are left with a significant amount of free time. 

Yes.  A side order of crazy to go please.

The main problem in regards to nutrition during the tapering period is that many runners make the mistake of not cutting down on food intake, even though you have cut a significant amount of distance off your training schedule.  As I had finished up on Saturday, KWade said to me 'now the hard part is to not gain weight over the next 3 weeks.'

True dat.

However, this does not mean you need to diet as you need plenty of carbohydrates for the distance still existent in your training schedule.  In addition, plenty of protein is needed for your muscles to recover from the effects of a high distance training schedule.  Avoid foods high in saturated fats as this will lead to weight gain.

Apart from being mindful of eating excessive carbs or unhealthy foods, taper nutrition should be similar to training nutrition.   By no means should you be following a low carb diet.  It doesn’t not matter if you put on a bit of weight during the tapering period as you will likely burn off the excess weight on marathon day alone.  I however clearly try very, very, very hard to avoid weight gain before race day.

Common Mistakes in Tapering:
  • Not tapering
    • Dumb.  There isn't really any other way for me to put it.  If you continue to wear your body down up until even a week before marathon you are going to have a really tough time out there.  Sure you will finish, but its going to suck.
  • Not tapering enough
    • See above.
  • Cross Training
    • Cross training is a legitimate form of additional training in a marathon training schedule but should be avoided (in excess) in the tapering period.  Some runners compensate the decrease in distance ran by increasing the amount of cross training they do.  Avoid this mistake as the entire purpose of the tapering period is to rest your body before race day.  I for one as I stated in a previous post am giving up Bikram/hot yoga and just focusing on getting some running in, at an easy pace and just letting things heal.  My yoga will be confined to my new solarium and in 15 min increments a couple of times a week.
  • Increasing speed
    • Guilty as charged.   If you perform speed work in your normal training schedule, then you should consider doing some in your tapering period, however do so at a decreased amount and avoid doing any in your final week of tapering.  This week is my last real speed workout with Yasso 800's, but I also intend to run my 12 miler this coming Saturday at closer to MP than I have been (pretty good cold front coming and I want to take advantage of it).  Some runners increase their speed as the decrease in distance does not leave them feeling exerted or tired at the completion of their runs.  However, be aware that the purpose of the taper is to give your body a rest, not wear it down more and leaving you more susceptible to injury.
  • Neglecting sleep
    • This has never been an issue for me.  I love sleep.  I wish I could sleep more but meds etc., keep me from those lovely 8 hours of sleep a night thing.  Sleeping is often underestimated, especially in the final week of the tapering period.  If you don’t already, try to get your sleep pattern in order before race day to ensure you are sufficiently rested and can go to sleep and wake up at reasonable times on the day before and on the day of the marathon.  Personally I think that two days before race day is the most crucial.  Most folks don't sleep too well the night before due to nerves or whatever.  Just like with my food, my day of must have rest is 2 days prior.  The day before I have a somewhat larger than normal lunch, but then I will usually only have a small dinner salad and cup of soup for dinner.  Having all that food in your stomach just weighs you down on marathon morning and can inhibit you before and during the race.
  • Drinking
    • By drinking, I am not referring to alcohol consumption (although reducing this will likely be beneficial).  Instead I am referring to fluid intake.  This is especially important during the final week of the taper and more important as race day grows closer.  As a general rule, as soon as you start carbo loading (which I do not condone nor practice), begin increasing your fluid intake.  This does not mean drinking water like crazy, instead having a steady fluid intake and being mindful about dehydration.
  • Letting your mind win
    • The psychological battle during the taper should not be underestimated.  Have a plan in place and avoid starting to make compromises with aspects of your training.  For example, many runners start tapering 3 weeks from the marathon, feel like they have all the energy in the world and try to increase their fitness for the marathon by adding another week of training.  Find some other activity to replace running and make an effort to stick to your tapering plan.
  • Getting injured
    • The truth is that most injuries can be prevented.  I would suggest that most injuries incurred during the taper period would be a result of two factors: running to much distance or not listening to your body.  Keep in mind that the tapering period serves no benefit for increasing fitness for the marathon day; the fitness was acquired in the pervious months of training.  If you feel tired or sluggish listen to your body, not your training schedule and skip a workout or two. Don’t take this advice in reverse though, if you feel great do not increase the speed or distance of your runs.
  • Not being aware of the benefits
    • By understanding the benefits of tapering and the physical advantage that it provides, you will be more likely to follow the advice in this guide and less likely to make any of the above mistakes.
Common Fears of Tapering
  • I will lose too much fitness by race day
    • Yes, you will loose some fitness before race day. However, you will decrease accumulated fatigue, increase glycogen stores and increase your muscle power in the process. The final result will be a faster time on race day, even though a slight amount of fitness may have been lost. Additionally, you will likely regain this fitness by completing the actual marathon.
  • What if I dont taper enough and I am sluggish on race day?
    • By following the information in this guide, you will be pretty much guaranteed to avoid this situation. However, at the same time you should listen to your body. If you feel tired or sluggish running, consider skipping a workout and taking a rest day. Also be aware that your body may be adapting to the change from a high distance running schedule to a relatively easy training schedule.
  • I will get too bored and try to run too much
    • Firstly, be aware of the reasons why to taper. In doing this you will likely take the taper more serious than otherwise. Secondly, you need to find something to occupy your time in which you would otherwise be running. Some suggestions have already been mentioned above. Its as simple as finding an area of your life that may have been neglected during the months spent training for the marathon.
How long do you taper?  Have you experimented with different times?  Do you go absolutely nuts or am I just the only one?


Xaarlin said...

Again, awesome detailed post. :)

I'm on board with a 3 week taper. I'll do a 11-13 mile run this weekend and not do a run longer than 7 next week.

I think the taper works. We used to taper for our 3 mile cross country races in high school. Or at least train to peak for certain races. It makes sence to give the body time to recover in order to be refreshed for race day.

I will experiment more for the next marathon I do, since this one I am just trying to survive without anymore injuries. The previous 2 I think i did a 3 week taper and for one felt great, and the other one I bonked during the race.

Jamoosh said...

Good point about the speed work. My sister-in-law sent me her training schedule (from Runner's World now less) and the first thing I told her was to delete the speed work scheduled the week of her race.

Mel said...

Great post.

I don't think a lot of people realize also, what the end stages of training and race recovery can do to your immune system.

I know some people who aren't careful and every single time, they get really sick before or after the race. My buddy AK gets sick afterwards every time, and she still fights me on it.

I am paranoid, I take extra C in those timeframes.

TX Runner Mom said...

3 weeks of taper for me please! I think you have to let your body rest before the big day. And, I'm with you on the sleep thing. I am looking forward to sleeping in a little on my taper.