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!

No comments:

Post a Comment