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Ready to Taper Properly?

Posted Mar 01 2013 10:12am
For anyone training for the myriad of March marathons, you are probably just starting to (or close to) taper time.  That glorious realization that all the hard work is done and it is time to rest.  "The hay is in the barn", as we've often heard.  But that's not really the case if you do it right.  Wait, what?  I can't put my legs up on the couch and mail it in until race day?  Unfortunately, that's reality if you are looking to do well in your next race.  And I'd argue that this time more than ever, is the time to really focus.  Not so much on getting the workouts done, but about making smart decisions to get you to the starting line with a clear mind and a fit body.

Let's look at it this way - you've spent months teaching yourself and your body that all this running is good.  It only actually took about 4-6 weeks to convince it and now you've been rolling with it for these last few months.  16, 18, 20, 22 milers - all teaching your body how to go long.  Tempo runs where you convince yourself that you can keep it going for just one more mile.  So when the taper rolls around, you can't just rest, because your body and mind will start adapting to that new model.  So what do we do?  We taper properly.  Not by resting, but by still running similar to how we have been doing it all these months.  Just less miles of it.

Now some guidelines will have you dropping off pretty significantly in those first couple weeks - 25% in week 1, another 25% in week 2, and then only a few runs the week of the race.  I think that may be a bit aggressive and could lead someone to be flat on race day.  Within 2 weeks, you've dropped your volume by 50%, and while your body will surely feel rested, I think you also start loosing that edge from all the training and your body may be moving in the opposite direction fitness wise from where you want it.  And as we all know, that first week of taper isn't really a taper at all (ie The Transition Week ), since you still have to run fairly long and put in some quality work.

What I am proposing is simply tapering down a little less, but still keeping volume relatively consistent.  Maybe 10-15% in week 1, and another 10-15% in week 2.  That way, your body is still in the same flow (ie working the same), but the volume drop is surely enough to make you feel like a million bucks come race day.  Now I'm not the only one that recommends this approach, so I'm not trying to claim responsibility for it.  You just see so much crap out there by major publications that really pull you back from the nuts and bolts of the purpose of the taper and the adaptations we strive for - rested, but not so much so that you feel out of shape and flat (or fat from so many less calories being burned).

So what can you do with the miles you run at that slightly reduced volume?  Well you certainly want to keep up the intensity and hone in on race pace.  By now, you should know what that i s, and be incorporating race paced workouts into some of your quality work.  Otherwise, how do you expect to run that pace on race day?  Race day magic?  I don't believe in that.  In order to get the results you want, you have to do the work to get there. 

So keep the routine for now.  If you regularly run 5 days a week, keep running 5 days a week, but just shorten the distances by a few miles here and there.  The week after (1 week before race week), then cut a little more.  For me, I typically run 6-7 days a week (8-9 runs with a few doubles), so I'm planning to stay with 6 days and starting to cut out the doubles.  Just some subtle cutbacks that will gradually take my volume down, but not by a ton.  Next week, I may take an extra day off and only run 5 days.  And race week will still include some running - a slightly longer effort (7-8 mi) earlier in the week, a few easy runs, and one last race paced run of 2-4 miles a couple days out.

Don't pull back too far, otherwise your body might forget what you want it to do come race day.  So be smart, stay healthy, and keep it simple.  Those are the keys to tapering properly.
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