Thursday, February 12, 2015

Finding The Apex

Not unlike most marathoners, maybe the single biggest challenge I face during training is figuring out a way to be in peak condition standing at the starting line on marathon day.  It shouldn't be that hard, right?  I mean, isn't marathon training simply a systematic cycle where you build your mileage pragmatically and methodically, bottling it up for 16 weeks, and then pop the cork for the perfect race day experience?  Well maybe that's the way it works for some runners, but after 28 marathons and one ultra, I can honestly say it rarely happens for me.

Sure, I've been close a few times.  I've been in great shape for a few races when the gun went off, and subsequently ran close to my best.  But much more the norm is the scenario of me standing in the starting corral, naturally a bit anxious, but moreover lamenting how just two or three weeks prior I felt much more primed for the 26.2 now staring me in my carb-loaded face.  And more than anything wondering why, after several weeks of diligent and committed training, I now felt jelly legged, soft-gutted, and unsure if I could run even three miles at my scheduled marathon pace.

Part of the issue is the taper.  We absolutely lose fitness during the taper.  Yes, I'm well aware that I'll receive several public and privately emailed dissenting comments informing me of my ignorance on the topic.  But it's a fact.  Don't believe me ... well, my favorite running website,, put it this way ...

     "Initial declines in fitness occur rapidly: There are measurable declines in fitness, and enzyme levels associated with performance drop by half in under two weeks."

This excerpt is actually from an article (here) that experimented with athletes who took complete layoffs for extended periods from their sports.  Of course I understand that we are not completely sedentary during the tapering process. But I just don't think there's any way can we drop from comfortably running 75-80 miles per week (in my case), to around 35-40 for the two weeks before the race and not "taper" our fitness level to some degree as well.  I just don't think it's physiologically possible.

But even though I firmly believe that we erode our fitness level, no matter how slightly, during the taper process ... I'm a huge believer in it.  There's just too much scientific support NOT to believe in it.  Among others, we rebuild damaged muscle fibers and top of glycogen stores during the cutback in training.  In my own little, "don't believe anything and try everything for yourself" experiments, I've actually completed marathons after running a long run of 20 miles the weekend before the race.  The result was that I felt really sharp the first half of the marathon, but then fatigued severely during the second half.   We absolutely need the rest and recovery prior to the marathon distance.

But also, I think part of my problem has been the length of training.  More than once I've felt at my "fittest" about five weeks before the race.  Not good.  And accordingly 14-16 week training periods seem to be a little too long.  This is partly because I keep a base of about 50 weekly miles all year round, and don't need as much "base-building" mode as some runners.  I've found that a good ten week cycle will typically prime me for a strong race.  And when I ran nine marathons in 2011, I was using an eight week process.  So it really just depends on  my conditioning benchmark at the time.

So with about fifteen days until the Phoenix Marathon, I sit here, once again thinking about how great I feel, and desperately hoping I feel somewhere close to this way on race morning.  I'll take the proper measures, and workout the prescribed "taper way" over the next two weeks.  And maybe, just maybe ... this time around I'll be fitter and faster than ever as we run down the hill in the desert mountains.  I guess we'll find out before long!
... Be Great Today!


  1. Because you have good baseline fitness and pretty high weekly miles going in, it makes sense that you need a shorter training cycle. I think a good bit of the first few weeks of a marathon training plan are just working up to higher mileage, so if you already have it, you don't need it.
    Funny, your every-day, no marathon, regular weekly miles are higher than my marathon weekly miles! I mean, sometimes your taper miles are more like my training miles. I wonder if I'm actually not running enough?

    1. On the contrary, I think I probably run a few too many miles at times. I have a couple of elite runner friends who never do more than an 18-mile long run and still run great marathons. I just don't feel comfortable with the marathon mileage unless I have a huge base. Probably mental more than anything.

  2. Have you ever taken a look at Hansons Marathon Method? Their taper is only around 10 days. Their last long run is still 3 weeks before marathon day, but they continue speed and tempo runs up until 10 days out. After that, everything is an easy run. Mileage doesn't really drop until the last week either.

    1. I'm vaguely familiar with it, but I really need to explore it more. I've have a few buddies use it and love it. I might give it a go this summer.

    2. You should research the Hanson's method Jim. I don't think it is for everyone, but for those who already have a solid base and like to train hard, the Hanson's method could work for you. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if you are already largely doing their system without realizing it. My understanding is they don't do lots of junk miles but their longest long run is 16 miles, but they always run them at goal marathon pace. Check it out.

  3. You are right Jim. Everyone needs to find their sweet spot in terms of tapering. I've run 20 miles 2 weeks before race date without too much of a problem.

    Generally the week before the marathon is the most important. I really dial it back and pretty much stop running for about 2 - 3 days before the big event.

    One thing that most schedules do try to push is doing a bit of speed work, perhaps a handful of quarters or half mile repeats. Sometimes it may be as little as 3 - 4 miles at marathon pace. I find that just enough of those type of workouts keep me fit.

    The bottom line, though, is you don't want to get to the starting line tired. Granted, if you are running marathons every weekend like the Marathon Maniacs, then you'll accept that, I've noticed that generally those that run them routinely don't vary in their times much and they seem to treat the marathon as just another supported long run.

    For people like you and me, though, we are really trying to push for the best time possible. We almost literally live or die based upon our times. You want to go to the starting line with every advantage of being able to push through the final 6 miles.

    I am looking forward to seeing how you do. Just enjoy the experience, trust in your training -- which you've certainly put in, and do your best. Literally, that is all you can do.


  4. Jim, I agree with the others that is seems like you need a shorter training cycle due to your solid mileage base in the "off season".Perhaps you don't need such a long taper either,but you wont really know until you try it out
    : )
    I do hope you find a taper method that works for you though. through my experience in competing in Figure I know the importance of peaking on show day. theres only been a handful of times I missed my mark and looked better the day after but it is trial and error process to say the least.
    the entire time I was reading your post I was relating your thoughts to Fitness/Figure competitions. the final weeks leading to a competition are crucial in order to "peak" for the show, meaning your physique looks perfect on stage ,that you don't look stringy,bloated over, too sunken in or over trained, but rather muscles full,skin dry, visible flowing lines of muscles throughout the body,etc. the last week before the show is the true "peak week" which is lovingly referred to in the bodybuilding community as "hell week" . this is the week when workouts stop (some will stop workouts 10 days before a show,some will stop workouts 3 days before) and water and nutrition take over. it is a complete science here and knowing how your body responds to rest,water and carbs is with marathon training,there are several different ways in which an individual can peak for show but each way entirely depends on the uniqueness of the individual and how they metabolize different foods, how their body responds to water intake, rest and over training. I could write a novel about the specifics,but generally speaking,an average person with a minimal fitness base needs anywhere from 6 months to a year to get ready for a show. a person that is already in shape and has a good base to start from needs around 16-20 weeks (4-5 months). and a person who has an exceptional athletic base to build from needs only about 6-8 weeks to be "show ready" or in "show shape" theres been only a handful of shows in which I have missed the mark and it all came down to the taper,or peak week. again,genarally speaking the last week involves no workouts,high water intake followed immediately by a water cut,carb depletion followed up by carb loading,and lots of resting with feet up in the air,literally. some individuals start peak week 2-3 weeks out and other start it 1 week out. for me, I take 3 days off in the gym,cut carbs for 12 hours,(I NEED carbs to function-cant be a good mom without em!)I don't eat crap massive carbs to refuel,dont cut water until 48 hours before the show...which is pretty uncommon compared to others in this subculture.part of this low key taper is because I only need about an 8 week training cycle to get where I need. I also HATE to diet down for a show so I don't gain a million pounds between shows....but the whole point of explaining this to you is that over the years I have learned what works best for me and how my body responds to certain things. its a science and its through trial and error that I learned what works and what doesn't. I know you know this but, it seems like your going to have to try a few different tapering methods out to see which one works best for you!
    will be looking forward to following you along this race. please keep us all updated on how tapering is going and if you decide to change anything up!!!

  5. I haven't run many marathons but both of the ones I've run during the taper have felt like it was too long. By rave day I felt sluggish and unprepared. I think that each of us need a slightly different taper - that one size does not fit all.


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