Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Tapering Conundrum

Yep, just sitting around tapering ... not running ...
tossing an orange in the air
A quick Google search on "Marathon Tapering" will reveal about a million different articles on the subject ... and probably just as many different opinions.  I've read (and probably tried) everything from "don't run at all two weeks before the race", to "treat it like every other week in training and run your tail off".  The best approach is probably found somewhere in the middle, right?

The conventional wisdom has been to drastically cut your mileage about 10-14 days before the big race, to heal up, conserve energy, and  build glycogen stores - which all sounds very logical.  But I would bet that every set of eyes reading this post has one or more horror stories about how this process adversely affected their race.  And count me among that contingent.  There have been several marathons where I felt like I was killing it in training, then the taper period rolled around and my body went into a weird lull, and I didn't run my best race.

The flip side of this coin is not tapering at all, which I've also tried for a couple of races.  I've actually ran marathons after running a 20 miler the weekend before, and training full tilt until two days before the race.  I wouldn't recommend this approach. My strategy was to treat the race like any other training run, with a few miles tacked onto the end.  But on most of these occasions, I stood at the starting line exhausted before the the clock ever started.   For me, there is just something about race day that takes a lot more energy, even if I'm not running all out.

So what do we do with this tricky two weeks before the race?  For recent races, I've definitely leaned more toward the "maximum rest/minimal running" approach.  In fact it's what I'm doing for my upcoming marathon ... but I'm just not sure this produces the best results.  I know drastically cutting the weekly mileage while trying to maintain the intensity is the most commonly held pre-marathon practice.  But I've never been a full believer in the reasoning.  There are just so many traditional approaches changing in the world of marathon training, and I wonder if this one doesn't need revamped as well.  For example, not long ago runners would fast the week before a race, now that seems crazy.  So where is written in stone that we must break so drastically from our training during taper, that it feels like we've actually lost fitness by the time the race rolls around.

Fairly traditional taper period with reduction in mileage two weeks before the marathon
The chart I've created above plots the long runs for what would be a fairly typical 20 week period before a marathon for me.  As shown, I usually try to gradually build my mileage until about four weeks before the race, and then start gradually backing it down.  The main thing I've always noticed ... and really struggled with ... about marathon training, is feeling and running my best about six weeks before the marathon.  Whether it's perceived or real, I essentially always peak too soon.  Everything after that seems to be desperately trying to maintain the fitness until race day.  Combine that with two weeks immediately before the race where I really throttle down, and I've rarely ever feel like I'm at my fittest on the morning of the race.  I'm like a piece of fruit that while still edible, was at my ripest a few days prior.

I understand the philosophy behind the taper period.  Believe me, I've studied it like it was my job.  But I just don't fully buy into the notion that as we're motoring along in our training, and hitting on all cylinders ... we basically just shut it down.  And then, after being somewhat dormant for 10-14 days ... almost completely from a "cold start" ... we open the throttle full bore and run longer and harder than we have in a long time.  That just doesn't really make sense.  It would be similar to studying for a huge test for a months, taking two weeks of vacation while barely cracking a book, and then showing up on test day expecting total recall and 100% clarity.  I really don't think most of us would produce our highest possible score, and similarly, I just don't believe that we haven't lost a little bit of fitness during the taper period.  Not to mention the endless mind games this little running vacation plays on our confidence.

Tapering approach I'm thinking about trying that moves the two week taper period to earlier in the training
So, something I've been toying around with, although I haven't had the guts to try yet, is completely changing where the two week rest period occurs before the marathon.  The distances aren't exact, but as you can see in the second chart, the reduction in mileage would happen about 4-5 weeks prior to race day, as opposed to directly adjacent to it.  Then, I would slowly ramp back up for a couple weeks, hopefully peaking on the morning of the marathon morning.  My thought process behind it is still giving my legs a couple of weeks to recover from the mileage during training, as with a typical taper, but then sort of "priming" the engine for a couple of weeks instead of just starting "cold".  The plan would be to log back-to-back 10-12 mile runs in weeks 16 & 17.  Then on refreshed legs, I would theoretically begin building again in weeks 18 & 19 with runs of 16-18 miles.  Finally, I would finish with a strong 26.2 in week 20.  Sound crazy?  Eh, might be.  Plus, I still need to vet it a little more to determine if there's any actual science behind the approach, instead of just my personal experience. Obviously, the most apparent risk with this plan would be fatigue on race day.  But my theory is that weeks 18 & 19 would essentially become the "warm up" laps for the marathon.

The main thing I think I've learned about marathon training tapering is to simply listen to my body.  Right now I feel like I'm in a really good place for the race next weekend.  I'm strong, healthy, a little overweight, but pretty confident about running in Idaho.  But I've had success in two recent marathons by taking a lot of time off before the race, so I'm going to stick with that approach for now.  But  I would love to hear everyone's thoughts on why they do or do not taper.  It seems like it's different for almost every runner.  Have a great weekend!
... be great today


  1. I did only one true taper, for the Louisiana Marathon in 2012. It was three full weeks of reduced mileage with my longest run something like 12 miles. I didn't like it: I felt like I had lost endurance and hit the wall. For my next race, I did two weeks, with long runs of 16 miles and 10 miles (if I remember correctly), and did better. It was a shorter taper with higher volume. For both I still did easy speedwork that week.I think a one-week taper is actually sufficient: just enough to start the race rested.
    Some people advocate a few fast mile repeats the day before the race to get back in the groove, too.
    I do agree that some of our taper advice goes against the old rule of "Don't try anything new on race day". We go out to race after eating a totally different diet for a week and completely changing our training!

    1. Yeah, it just always seems that the taper period is contrary to everything else we've done in training until then

  2. If you are peaking too early, maybe your training cycle is too long. Maybe try backing off to a 16 week cycle with a one week or week and a half taper. Take that with a grain of salt though, since I haven't run a marathon yet.

    1. You're right Mike, this 20 week period is actually an exaggerated example for me, my typical training period is actually 8-10 weeks, 16-20 is just way too long for me to maintain intensity

  3. I stopped running a week before my half marathon today. Reason was a bit of runners knee that I was resting bug I was amazed how great I felt during the race. The leg, it was cranky, but the soul was on FIRE! Good luck next week!

    1. I agree Kathleen, I've had best results recently by really resting up, thanks

  4. Tapering makes me feel lazy and fat, and it's hard to get myself going again. But I have to admit that there's a huge (huge!) difference between running with fatigued and running with fresh legs.
    Enough on tapering. I love this line. I am tempted to steal it, lol. "I'm like a piece of fruit that while still edible, was at my ripest a few days prior."
    Cheers and happy tapering,

  5. That's an interesting theory. It'll be even more interesting to see how it works out in practice.

    1. Yeah, don't know if I have the guts to try it Char

  6. On the topic of tapering, how about the newest results of this study!

    Me personally, I'm doing the Hanson's Method (bought the book, completely bought into the science behind it) and they prescribe a 10 day taper. I love their thinking behind it, here's a few quotes:

    "The mistake many runners make with their taper is that they cut everything from training, including mileage, workouts, intensity, and easy days. In the same way we instruct you not to add these components too soon, we also suggest not abruptly cutting them out. When runners subtract too much training too quickly, they often feel sluggish and even more fatigued than they did when they were in their peak training days. By cutting the training back in a gradual manner, you'll feel fresh and ready to race.
    An SOS workout takes about 10 days to demonstrate the physiological improvement. That's right, it takes more than a week before you reap any benefits from a hard run. If you look at the training plans in the Hansons Marathon Method, you'll notice that the last SOS workout is done 10 days prior to the marathon, because after that point, SOS workouts will do nothing but make you tired for the big day. We also implement roughly a 55% reduction in overall volume the last 7 days of the program. Despite this, you will still run the same number of days per week, with only the daily mileage reduced."

    And one more:

    "The problem with many marathon training plans is that they cut too much out of the schedule and also prescribe a taper of 2-4 weeks, causing a runner to lose some of those hard-earned fitness gains. By subscribing to a 10 day taper period, you cut down on the risk of losing any of those gains, but still allow adequate time for rest and recovery."

    Their taper goes hand in hand with their cumulative fatigue theory so I'm not sure if this would work for everyone.

    1. I definitely agree Bill, 2-4 weeks would be too long and you could lose fitness

  7. I've done well with a maximum of a ten mile long run one week before the target marathon, then in the final five days before the race doing a "countdown" mileage, i.e,:
    5-days before, at most 5 miles,
    4-days before, at most 4 miles,
    until the day before the race I do at MOST one mile (possibly none if I have to walk much at/around the Expo.)

    Key is to go into the race relaxed and confident, so don't stress it.

    Good luck!

  8. If you are listening to your body and cutting back on quantity not quality I think you will be just fine. That is always my strategy during the taper phase. You are ready!!


Thanks for stopping by ... your comment's always welcome!