Sunday, April 8, 2012
Mastering the Taper
I think tapering is the hardest part of marathon training. Hear me out. Consider that you have to chose the length of time you taper, the number of miles you reduce your volume by and the intensity in which you do those last few workouts. Every mile and every day makes a difference. Did you make the right choices? You'll find out around mile 20 of the most important race of your season.
You could say that about all facets of your program, but the taper is the one where I find myself doing the most second-guessing. That's because unlike a week that was too hard or too easy in the middle of the program, there is little or no time to fix a mistake made in the taper portion.
As the cycle for my fifth marathon draws to a close, I am taking a new approach to the taper much like I did at the end of my fourth, third, second and first marathon cycles. This taper, which began a week ago today (so, it's a 15 day taper) calls for low volume and moderately high intensity. It takes some methods from Pete Pfitzinger, some from the Hansons and some from my past mistakes, all of course with the approval of Jerry. Prior to Boston and Richmond in 2010, I only backed off my average weekly mileage by 20% and did marathon pace runs of 10 miles nine days before the race. In Boston, I blew up in the final 10K of the race. In Richmond, despite running a 3 minute PR, I felt flat and tired from mile seven to the finish and my time was not indicative of what I was trained to run.
Pfitzinger preaches that the last day a runner can really gain fitness applicable to the marathon is 10 days before the race. He recommends a 2X2 mile workout at half-marathon to marathon pace while the Hansons call for a 5-10K effort at marginally slower than 10K race pace. I did four miles at slightly slower than half marathon pace (5:35, 5:36, 5:38, 5:35) with a very easy warm up and cool down. From here on out it is all about rest and recovery.
The most important thing about tapering is adjusting your priorities. During the entire marathon cycle, getting in the miles and the workouts trumps almost everything. But, during the taper, running falls to a distant third on the list between sleep and food (although those items were always a very close second to running). I have forced myself to sleep through runs just to get the required slumber. Monday, I skipped an easy run for a massage. Friday night, I stopped and walked home after I realized my run was getting a little longer than I intended. Last Tuesday, Jerry pulled me out of an interval workout after two of the three prescribed intervals. I felt like I had more left in the tank, but he saw another interval jeopardizing this critical rest period.
Yes, tapering is frustrating on more than one level. It's not just because it's the farthest thing possible from an exact science, but it also flies in the face of every endurance runner's instincts. You spend months pushing your body to the brink of complete breakdown and then you spend a couple of weeks preventing yourself from even coming close to finishing a run where you are wheezing with your hands on your knees. You feel lazy, you feel sluggish and worst of all, you feel just as hungry as you did when you were at the peak of the cycle.
Let me be clear about one thing. I am not saying the tapers I have done in the past were wrong. I am saying they were wrong for me. Perhaps they were only off by a day or two, or a mile or two. It was enough to prevent the perfect race. That said, the only person that can prescribe the perfect taper is the runner themselves. It is the most individualized part of your training. If you are lucky enough to find one, stick with it. Many very smart, mature and dedicated runners are still looking after five, ten, even twenty marathons. I hope this is the taper that leaves me feeling rejuvenated on race day. I'll know somewhere around Newton.