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Keep Calm and Taper On

by Coach Tim Cary

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The bi-annual half and full marathon season is upon us. You've pushed and tested your limits for months now. In fact, if the zombie apocalypse should occur, you're ready. By now, you've been zombified by training for quite a while. 

Your zombified state also means you are in, or are about to be in, the most confusing, stressful training period: the taper. 

With your goal race only a few weeks away, all you’ve got to do now is stay fit and rest up so you’re ready to go on race day. But therein lies the problem: how do you maintain fitness while focusing on recovery? How do you stay sharp while scaling back on miles and intensity? How, exactly, should you taper? 

The key to a successful taper is keeping the big picture in mind. It's all about getting to the start line healthy, happy, and ready to roll. The best way to ease the stress of the taper is to understand the purpose and science behind it. Once you get your brain wrapped around that, you'll be much more relaxed and confident as you deal with the taper crazies. 

Your body needs recovery and rest in order to reach optimal performance on race day. Think of the race as a pinball machine, with your body as the pinball and your training as the spring that launches the ball through the machine. Your taper, then, is the time when you are pulling back on the knob to compress the spring; all that stored up energy and fitness is just waiting to be released. 

Throughout training, it is normal to be fatigued from one run to the next. High-volume training taxes the muscles and cardiovascular system, forcing the body to adapt to a heavier workload even while it is recovering from the last workout. The taper is the point in training at which the focus is no longer about building fitness. Instead, the focus switches to peaking physically at just the right time so you can “launch” yourself on race day. 

Specifically, the purpose of the taper is to:

  1. let your muscles recover and rebuild;
  2. maintain the fitness that you’ve accumulated;
  3. replenish the energy stores that have been operating in a state of deficiency. 

A bonus of the taper is that it refreshes your motivation and mental strength. Training fatigue wears on the mind as well as the body. By allowing your body to go through the supercompensation phase of training, you come out of the training doldrums with a much more positive (i.e., less cranky) outlook. 

The physiological benefits of a structured taper are impressive. According to distance running guru Pete Pfitzinger on any given day a good workout will lead to less than 1 percent improvement in overall fitness, but a smart taper can lead to a race day performance improvement of 3 to 5 percent. For a two-hour half marathoner, that would equals five minutes. For a lot of people, three to five percent can be the difference between hitting or missing a personal record or Boston Marathon qualifying time. 

You need to switch from building to tapering one to three weeks before race day. As you start your taper, don't become a couch potato, but don't overdo it, either. The trick is to find the balance between resting up and staying physically sharp. Keep in mind that just as every day of training has a purpose, so does every day of your taper. Know also that the taper is relative.  For example, someone doing higher mileage will see a bigger cut back in terms of mileage than someone doing lower mileage, but the percentages will be similar. Follow the following general guidelines to help make the taper not only enjoyable, but also a vital component to race day success. 

Cut Back, Not Out | Decrease the number of miles you’re running, but don't get rid of the quality. Your body has become used to a certain training cycle. You want to stay on that routine while cutting back on the volume. If you run five days a week, stay true to that. If you have two hard workouts per week, then make sure to keep that routine up. The goal is to do a lower volume of these workouts, so our body bounces back quicker and with more energy. Staying with your routine keeps your legs sharp and builds confidence in the days leading up to your race. 

Run Easy Runs Easy | With your legs getting more and more juice from less volume and more rest, it is very tempting to hammer a run. Don’t do it. You’ll only hurt your chances of having a good run on race day. Kevin Beck of Competitor magazine suggests scheduling a run with someone who runs at a pace much slower than your own or even hopping on the treadmill (if you’re used to treadmill running—don’t try anything new during race week) and setting the speed at a very low pace. Do whatever you need to do to keep your easy runs easy. Save that juice for race day. 

Don’t Sweat the Pounds | Keep your eating patterns regular. Don’t diet. Don’t cut carbs. The last thing you want to do is throw your body into caloric or glycogen deficiency heading into your race. In fact, you’ll probably see an extra pound or two on race day because you’ve finally returned to proper glycogen and hydration levels. That’s a good thing. As I like to say, a race car weighs more when its gas tank is full than when it's empty, and I know which one will go faster in a race. Keep your nutrition plan simple during the taper. Don’t splurge. Don’t diet. Don’t try anything new. 

Keep the Stress at Bay | This can be difficult—and sometimes we can’t control what life throws at us—but be aware that emotional and mental stress inhibits your body’s ability to perform optimally. As race day approaches, try to avoid big undertakings or projects with deadlines. Get plenty of sleep and keep your bedtime as stable and routine as possible. For you night owls, remember that the sleep you get before midnight is vitally important. 

More Than Just Running | Again, it's very tempting to throw in a few extra sets of reps at the gym or to push the pace on the bike or to tackle a Michael Phelps-ian workout in the pool. Don’t do it. Your taper is all-encompassing. The energy you’re trying to salvage and store up for race day comes from one place: you. You can't rob Peter to pay Paul. It's not like you have separate stores of energy: one for running, one for swimming, one for biking. You want those fuel stores stockpiled when the gun goes off on race day. 

Know Thyself | Each one of us responds differently to the taper. Age, injuries, illness, schedule, stress, and other factors may shape your taper. Some people like a shorter taper. Others need the assurance that they are well rested. Know what works for you and stick with it. Being flexible and adaptable is the best way to taper. 

Shake It Out | Believe it or not, your body will benefit from a very easy “shake out” run the day before race day. Keep the run extremely easy and short: no more than 20-30 minutes. Getting the blood flowing, shaking the travel out of your legs, and burning off some of those pre-race nerves, will do a world of benefit for race day.

Let it Go | Don’t worry. Don’t overthink. Don’t over-analyze. While positive visualization can be a good thing, dwelling too much on race day often leads to unnecessary stress. It will take enough energy to run the race once; running it countless times in your head will wear you out before you even get to the start line. Instead, find other things to occupy your mind. Beck suggests picking up that book you’ve been meaning to read, watching that new comedy everyone is talking about, and avoiding running websites (with the exception of www.fleetfeetstlouis.com).

Trust The Training. It’s simple. It’s science. It works.


Tim CaryTim Cary is Fleet Feet's Assistant Training Manager and coach of the Fleet Feet-sponsored Runnababez Elite team.  Over his more than two decades of coaching, Tim has coached athletes to three national team championships, five national individual championships, two national records, and numerous All-American and All-State honors.  Click here to receive Tim's weekly article via email.

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