Ah, taper time. The hard work is done and now it’s time to chill for three weeks until race day. Right? Actually, it appears that a properly executed taper can be nearly as important as the training that comes before it. I think most athletes will agree that a period of reduced mileage before a major race is beneficial, although the length of the taper and the workouts performed in that time can be open to discussion.
The taper that I’ll be incorporating is just as the name implies – a graduated reduction of mileage and effort rather than a steep drop-off after the last long run, which took place three weeks ahead of the race. I’ll still be running speed intervals and short tempos, although the last two long runs of the cycle will be significantly shorter. My weekly running mileage will be a function of my total for the last hard week of training, which was 52 miles. The first week will be about 75 percent of that total, going down to 50 percent in week 2 and 25 percent during race week. I’ll also be adjusting my diet to focus on key nutrients as my body shifts from a state of near-constant training fatigue to race-readiness.
Here’s a look at my taper plan for the next three weeks:
Week 1 – 38 miles: Even though the mileage comes down a bit this week, there’s still no slacking off. My speed workout on Monday was a draining session of 8×800 at 5:46 pace for a total of 7 miles. My mid-week tempo run will include a 5-mile segment at a 6:49 average, and my long run of 14 miles will be done at marathon pace (around 7:11). The rest of the miles will be easy (although that long run should also feel easy if I hope to hold that pace on race day).
My diet this week has focused on a slightly higher concentration of protein to help my muscles as they recover and rebuild from the previous weeks of steadily breaking them down.
Week 2 – 25 miles: The running really starts to ramp down this week. Since training gains generally don’t manifest themselves until about 10-13 days after a workout, nothing I do from here on out is going to make me any stronger on race day. There’s no such thing as “cramming” for a marathon. I’ll have one more tough speed session early in the week (just outside that 13-day window) and a short but fast tempo run mid-week that will serve to keep me fresh while not expending too much energy over a longer distance. The long run that week will be 10 miles, again at race pace.
My diet will be relatively normal this week as I moderate both my protein and carb intake.
Week 3 – 11 miles: Race week is going to be largely about resting. I’ll have a short speed session on Monday, just to keep the legs limber, and a short tempo run at race pace on Wednesday. Thursday and Friday will be complete rest days, and then I’ll plan to get in a very short run (1-2 miles) at race pace on Saturday, the day before the race. That short run is one last rehearsal to let my legs know what they’ll need to do the next morning. Otherwise I plan to spend most of Saturday off of my feet.
My race-week diet will, of course, be heavier on the carbs and fluids. This will be the first time I’ve traveled for a race, so I still need to figure out how to prepare my favorite pre-race dinner in a hotel room. This will not be a night for gustatory experimentation. (My wife may consider this the worst trip to the beach she’s ever experienced – no sightseeing walks, no restaurant meals – nothing but time spent cooped up with a nervous, antsy runner).
Cross-training: Although this is a key component of the training plan I’ve been following, the plan’s authors don’t discuss how the twice-a-week cross-training sessions should be adjusted during the taper. I’ll probably perform them as usual in the first week, scale back on the time and effort in week 2 and then eliminate them completely in the third week. Like I mentioned above, I’m not going to be making any real gains in my endurance or overall fitness in the last two weeks, and since that’s the major focus of the cross-training I feel OK about scaling back. At this point it’s more about the mental and physical rest and recovery and not feeling like I have to do something for at least an hour six days a week.
So that’s the plan. Easy, right? What I haven’t addressed is how I’ll handle the inevitable moment when I start to question all my training and convince myself that I’ll never run this race at goal pace. And when the phantom pains will make me feel like my body is falling apart. And where my unending hunger will make me fear that I’m putting on too much weight and will be too sluggish to run anymore. The taper brings out the crazies, and that will be its own challenge!Bike: 0/296.3 miles Run: 6.2/365.9 miles