Friday, April 29, 2016

Taper Madness: The End of Marathon Training

Do you know what a taper is?

If you've ever participated in an endurance event, you surely do. But if you haven't, you may not be aware of how training changes in the last few weeks leading up to a race. It's kinda crazy.

The simple idea behind a taper is that in the two to three weeks before your race, you gradually dial down the intensity and duration of your workouts. So for runners, that means scaling back on the distance, and cutting out speedwork and heavy lifting. It seems counter-intuitive -- why wouldn't you keep working hard right up to the race? But studies have shown that a taper can improve your performance by as much as 3 percent. My goal is to finish under 4 hours, so 3 percent translates to more than 7 minutes.

What Actually Happens to Your Body?

As you probably realize, marathon training pushes your body well beyond what even reasonably fit people are comfortable with. My peak week, right before the taper, included 46 miles of running -- about 7 hours' worth of exercise. (And that doesn't even count warmups, cooldowns, walks to and from work or any other activity.) Really, you're on a razor's edge: You're maximizing your endurance and fitness just short of the point of overtraining or injury.

Lily has been resting up, too!
So by gradually dialing back on mileage, you really accomplish three big things:

  • Replenish your energy stores, particularly your glycogen. Glycogen is the blood sugar your body prefers for energy.
  • Gives your muscles a chance for recovery. In other words, get some rest!
  • Allows you to heal up all those little twinges and dings and aches you've been nursing.

So How Do You Go About Tapering?

Experts say the taper begins "immediately upon completing your last long training run, which is usually between 20 and 23 miles." That's generally three weeks out from the race, as it was in my case, when I went just shy of 22.

You won't find me lifting!
Dial back the mileage. The idea is to start allowing your body more rest, but you don't want to give back all of your gains. So you can't just stop running altogether. Instead, you gradually decrease to the point where, in the week just before the race, you're running just enough to keep your muscles limber. My last Sunday run was 8 miles.

No strength training. The taper is a time for your muscles to repair. In three weeks, you're not going to lose significant strength. But you can do some damage if you keep trying to lift heavy. You want those muscle fibers to repair, not to get torn again. Plus, much as with dialing back mileage, cutting out resistance training will help build glycogen stores. Even non-aerobic training uses energy.

Dietary changes. This is when the carb loading really starts. To avoid the dreaded 20-mile "bonk," you want to go into the race with as much glycogen in your system as you can hold. In week one of the taper, you also try to ramp up on protein, to aid in muscle repair. But after that, you start building up your carbs. In order not to overload on calories, that means a big reduction in fat -- as little as 10 percent of your calorie intake. I've been eating so much fruit, rice, potatoes, pasta, bread and other carbs that I'm ready to cry. After the race, I may just grab a spoon and a jar of pesto. I've also cut even further back on alcohol and limited myself to one cup of coffee a day, since both are diuretics.

But Really, It's Mental

The hardest part of tapering for me is the mental game. I'd just spent the past three months or so working as hard as I possibly could to prepare for the rigor of 26.2 miles. And all of a sudden, you're supposed to take it easy. No, having an extra half-hour because you only ran 3 miles doesn't mean you should add in a HIIT routine. Yes, it's OK to stretch out on the couch. No, there's no benefit to adding in a few extra miles. And go ahead and eat, eat, eat -- just make sure it's carby.

When you've been driving this hard for this long, the idea of letting up is enough to drive you nuts.

Have you ever tapered for a big event? What successes and failures did you encounter? Sound off in the comments, on Facebook or on Twitter!

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

6 Last-Minute Marathon Mistakes I Won't Repeat

It's nervous time.

I have less than three weeks before I run the New Jersey Marathon, and I'd bet I've done more thinking and researching and reading and mulling in the past few days than I did over the last few months.

I've put in the hard work. I've run more than 400 miles already in this training cycle. I've been consistent with speedwork and strength training. I've cut way, way back on alcohol and been vigilant about my nutrition. And now that I've entered the taper phase -- where you cut mileage to rest up and restore depleted energy stores -- I don't want to mess everything up.

Two years ago, I ran out of gas at about mile 23. Part of that was the conditions: There was a hellacious headwind for the last six miles of the race. But part of it was attributable to mistakes I made -- mistakes I don't plan to repeat.

To be honest, two years ago I didn't really focus that much on nutrition at any point during my training. Yes, I understood that carb-loading happens in the week before the race, not just the night before, but beyond that I really didn't pay a ton of attention to what I was eating.

This week, I've ramped up on protein and carbs, and tried to cut back on fat to compensate. The protein will help repair the muscles I've broken down over the past few months, and especially the past week with a long run of 22 miles. The carbs will restore my energy stores.

Next week, I'll shift to more carbs. And then during race week, it'll be almost all carbs.

None of this during race week!
Looking back on my old blog, I can see that I drank too much beer in the weeks leading up to the marathon. I had two the night before my final long run leading up to the taper. I kinda went to town at a party two weeks out from the race. And even the Friday before the marathon, I had a couple after attending the race expo. Not smart:

  • Alcohol impacts your sleep and messes with other systems at a critical point. I need my body to be all systems go.
  • It's a diuretic. The glycogen your body produces via carbs requires more water to carry it in your bloodstream. You want to remain as hydrated as possible, and not just in the couple days leading up to the race.
  • Who needs the empty calories? It probably didn't add much, but every bit of weight I can avoid carrying is a plus.
I'm also going to try to cut back on caffeine, which is also a diuretic.

Working Too Hard During the Taper
Two years ago, there were a few runs that were just outright fast -- way beyond race pace. And again looking back at the blog, I was still doing heavy strength training close to race day. Both of these are bad ideas. The taper is a time to rebuild the muscles that you've been taxing for months. The stress of speedwork and weight-lifting tears muscle fibers. Normally, that's a good thing -- that's how you build muscle. But do it too close to your race and your body won't have time to recover fully.

Yesterday was my first taper run, on the treadmill. As badly as I wanted to speed up and get it over with, I stuck with a nice, easy pace -- :30/mile slower than my recent half-marathon. And I've had to keep telling myself that less is more. No need to do heavy lifting. No need to add mileage. Keep your pace in check. 

I'm doing just enough to keep my fitness levels up over the next few weeks. 

Too Much Fun at the Expo
Bought one of these at the expo.
In the few days leading up to a marathon, you want to spend as little time on your feet as you can. So why in God's green earth did I spend two hours at the race expo the Friday before the marathon? I circled the place three or four times. I checked out every booth. I even sat in the massage chair -- a huge error. You don't want anything breaking down muscle fibers right before your run.

I've learned my lesson on this one. Get your race packet, do one loop to see if there's anything worth checking out, and go home. 

My Fueling Strategy Sucked
More precisely, I didn't really have a fueling strategy. 

In my training runs two years ago, I found that my body generally had sufficient glycogen to carry me through about a half-marathon. In fact, in the half-marathon I ran that year, I did not even use GU. I had some Gatorade thing that I took at mile 3, and that was it. It was fine for that distance.

That does not work in a marathon. I waited until about the halfway point to ingest my first GU packet. (GU is a specially formulated gel designed to deliver quick-digesting carbs to your system mid-run.) I felt fine, so why would that be a problem, right? The problem is that there's a lag between the time your liver runs out of glycogen and you burn it all out of your bloodstream -- the point where you bonk. And once it's gone, you'll never catch back up. It takes 10 or 15 minutes for the stuff to get back into your bloodstream, and really, there isn't enough in one packet to make a difference at that point. (And more than that at a time won't digest properly.)

So during long training runs this time around, I've been taking a GU every five miles, regardless of how I feel. And I haven't totally bonked on a training run yet (aside from the 17-miler right after I was done being sick). 

I Left Time in the Bank
Even though I bonked at mile 23 two years ago, I think I ran an overly cautious race. I hit midway at 2:05, which was a full 9 minutes slower than the half-marathon I'd run, and left me zero chance of breaking 4:00. I don't think the bonk would have come sooner had I been a bit more aggressive. And I probably should have used the tailwind to my advantage instead of just trying to play it safe worrying about the headwind coming back.

And I'm also hoping that, if I do all of these other things right, I won't feel the need to be too conservative. I can go out at a pace that would put me within striking distance of my "A" goal, with the knowledge that I should have more in the tank than I did in 2014. 

I'm hoping that when I get to the final 5K, I have enough in me to make a real push at a great time. And if not, at least to be ahead of where I was last time around.

Don't Get Me Wrong
My medal and a photo my dad framed
I'm proud of what I was able to accomplish in 2014. In a little more than a year since I got serious about my health and fitness, I went from couch to 26.2, and I did it in under the median finishing time for marathon runners that year. 

But I've improved my running significantly since then, and I want to see this thing through. That means doing whatever I can to get the next two and a half weeks right, race weekend right and my race plan right.

What's been your biggest fitness bugaboo? You know, that one thing that seems to trip you up despite all your hard work. Sound off in the comments below, on Facebook or on Twitter!