Marathon Week: The Taper

>> Monday, September 27, 2010


We got a great reader question this weekend that we just had to answer right away. It's such a timely request -- since we're only six short days away from running our second marathon (Wineglass Marathon).

Megan writes:

Like you and Stephen, I have a race on Sunday (mine is a half-marathon, my first!), and being the novice I am the whole concept of tapering has me very bewildered. I was wondering what you guys do for a taper. I've loosely modeled my last week after some half-marathon training plans, but I'm still unsure I'm doing it right. I also want to make sure I'm adequately hydrating and eating plenty of carbs in the days before the race. Good luck on the marathon!


First, THANK YOU, Megan, for your well wishes! We are so psyched for you because the half marathon is such a great race. It's my favorite, in fact. You will love it, and it's important to taper for sure. Though we don't know all the "rules" for perfect tapering, we do know a bit from experience.

(((It's also important to note that there are seriously 7,000,000 different methods for tapering. They aren't all right, but they aren't all wrong. It's important for you to play around with them to see what works for you and only you.)))


For those of you totally unfamiliar with the concept, tapering is "the gradual reduction of training intensity and duration as you edge forever closer to race day" (source). Marathoners -- both new and seasoned -- are familiar with this term, but the method applies to races of ALL distances.

How long (in days and weeks) a taper is depends on your race, but a good guide is to "taper for two days for a 5K to 5-mile race; taper for three to four days for a 10K to a half-marathon" (source). For the marathon, I've seen both two- and three-week tapers, depending on the training plan. Take a look at my plan (Hal Higdon's Intermediate I) to see how the mileage decreases after the last 20-miler (week 6-Sept.).


I'm sure you'd rather read about what we -- specifically -- are doing rather than the usual shared advice. First: Though we've been running significantly fewer miles, we've maintained the relative intensity of our runs. For Stephen, this has meant he's still doing speed work and pace workouts, just at our newly reduced mileage. For me, I'm still running a couple runs with Stephen per week, which get my legs moving faster. I've also tried to run my final long runs at/around my desired marathon race pace. But I haven't added any new types of workouts or changed all my runs to easy runs.

(((I don't necessarily advise running long runs at race pace unless it's comfortable for you. For me, my marathon pace is much slower than my normal easy pace, so I feel it's OK to do a few this way.)))

On this Sunday's 10-miler, for instance, Stephen was generous enough to run with me at my goal marathon pace. We maintained around 8:40 miles throughout the run (and at an even clip for the most part). This pace didn't feel strained or difficult for me. Instead, I found myself holding back to keep the feel, to lock it into my memory.


A few weeks ago I ran a mid-week 10-miler at 8:14 pace, negative splits galore. I know on this Sunday's run I could have gone faster, but that's not the point during the taper. I needed to keep my current goal in mind. And my current goal is to run the marathon at around 8:40 pace, which would give me a finish slightly slower than 3:47:00.

(OK. That's my goal A. Goal B is to finish around 3:59:59. Goal C is to finish in any time better than last year's race -- 4:10. I'll be happy to finish, though. No matter the time.)

So, reduce mileage. Keep intensity. And keep it flexible. I've had to move around a couple of my taper runs simply because other life stuff has gotten in the way. Not freaking out about this change-of-plans helps me stay sane, which we'll go over in just a moment. Perhaps more important than these tips on mileage/pace/etc. is all the non-running stuff. Yup -- what you do OFF the road is critical to a good taper as well.

Especially the following:


REST:

Stephen and I have both decided to go to bed at least half an hour early every night this week. That extra rest will really add up and help us feel primed and ready on race day. Often, at least for me, as the big event draws closer, it's harder and harder for me to catch all the Zzzs I need. So, putting some extra sleep in the bank will ensure that even if I don't sleep a wink the night before the marathon, I feel well rested.

Though it will be tough having to miss out on some of our nightly activities (mostly TV shows, yeah!), above all else -- sleep is key to not only feeling rested, but staying healthy.


NUTRITION:

Eating well this week is more important than ever. Proper nutrition helps with energy levels. Not shying from carbs helps the body store proper fuel. Abstaining from alcohol and (for me) caffeine helps the body stay hydrated (and on a regulate sleep schedule). We don't have specific nutritional advice because we don't follow specific plans. But we try our best to eat whole foods, as well as a good mix of carbs and protein. We will be eating pasta the night before the race, but not a ridiculous amount.

We are keeping it simple. Keeping our diets similar to how they have been during our heaviest training weeks. I'll admit, though, that it's been difficult to get into a good food rhythm since my 50+ mile week. I'm used to eating a TON and with only a couple runs this week, I don't need the sheer amount of food I'm used to. I'm feeling bloated and sluggish -- not only from how I'm eating, but it is now evident that my body has impeccable timing . . . and I'll be running the marathon during my favorite time of the month (TMI, guys -- sorry!).

So, if anyone has tips for race week nutrition, we'd love to hear 'em.


PHYSICAL HEALTH:

As I mentioned the other day, it seems EVERYONE around me is sniffling, sneezing, and hacking. I've turned into a bit of a germaphobe, even moreso than I am already. But by following some simple practices, I've kept my immune system strong and my allergies at bay.

What exactly have I been doing?
  • I always get allergies this time of year. So, instead of suffering like I usually do, I started taking over-the-counter generic Zyrtec. It seriously knocks out my itchy eyes and runny nose in no time at all. And without all that in my system, there's little change it'll develop into something more severe, like a sinus infection (I get several a year!).
  • I've also been snorting salt water. Well, a saline nose-spray, to be exact. Though I've been prescribed a more heavy-duty variety, the saline mix seems to do the trick. Just two spritzes in the morning and at night. Keeps my nose moisturized and clean. Some of you may wish to try out a neti pot. I've heard great things -- but I don't think it's for me.
  • I've been drinking LOTS of water, herbal tea, and Airborne. The more clear liquids the better. Hydration is not only good for overall health, but also for my body as I prepare to run for four hours. And though people disagree over the benefits of those fizzy immune support drinks -- psychosomatic or not -- I'll take what I can get right now.
  • Refer back to the REST section of this post.
  • And refer back to the NUTRITION section of this post. Everything in connected. Feed yourself, treat yourself right -- your health should follow (at least in most cases).

MENTAL HEALTH:

There's this thing called "taper madness" -- basically, runners start to go crazy thinking about the race, the possibility of injury or sickness, the possibility of awful weather or other unforeseen events impacting a successful race day, etc. The reduced mileage definitely doesn't help -- in fact, my legs are rather restless right now. I feel like I need to get moving, but I know I need to back off.

I'm trying to stay stress free in any way that I can. My biggest concern, that Stephen hears about daily, is getting injured during the race like I did in Philly. I've repeated this concern to Stephen so many times, I know he's just sick of it. How do I overcome this all-consuming fear? I verbalize it, but then tell myself it's OK if it happens. I dealt with it last year, and I survived to train for another marathon. I keep telling myself that -- though the race is the chief goal, all the training I've done since early July has been good for my body.


REMEMBER:

The marathon (and ALL other races) are more than just the race. It's about ALL the hard work, the runs in the rain and heat (or snow and cold), the early Sunday mornings (and all those Saturday night parties you've come home early from), the setbacks and successes, etc. It's the ENTIRE journey. One packaged deal, not a single day, that is important. So many things (SO. VERY. MANY.) can have negative or positive impacts on race day. Something is bound to either go right or wrong. Runners need to remember that even if a PR isn't reached, that doesn't necessarily mean failure.

The best part is that you've done the training. So, if at first you don't "succeed" in the way you wanted, you can keep trying. Yeah: No matter your speed or distance, being a runner means you're a winner. Of course, I now sound like some kind of Sesame Street special . . . but think about it. How are you losing if you're dedicating yourself to your fitness?


Some additional taper information and advice:
And if you haven't yet checked out our Running Page (with an index for all our running-related posts), that's a good place for all other general running info.

GOOD LUCK TO EVERYONE OUT THERE TRAINING OR RACING!!!

If YOU have any tips to share, we'd love to hear them. Just leave a comment or email us at neverhomemaker [at] gmail [dot] com.

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