There are lots of different training theories for distance racing. Most of them suggest a taper in weeks leading up to the big event. For weeks, months, or many months in the case of an Ironman, you’ve been training and building, focusing on increasing mileage on a weekly basis. Yeah, you get some rest days here and there to sleep in, repair damaged muscles, give your mind a chance to focus on something other than running/triathlon (if you dare!), but could 24 hours of inactivity really repair anything in between all of that? Hence the taper, an opportunity to keep the motor running while your muscles rebuild and gain strength.
For marathons I’ve raced my planned taper was 3 weeks, however in the case of Boston it ended up being 4. My highest volume training (right before taper) included 22 mile long runs and 50 miles/week. During taper week #1 that dropped significantly to a 12 mile long and about 28 miles/week . During taper week 2 it became an 8 mile long and 20 miles/week. During taper week 3, which should be more aptly titled: PLEASE DONT TALK TO ME, I’M CRABBY Week, it was a terrible 5 mile “long” and maybe 12 miles/week . I will admit, and I’m sure my husband agrees, that I was not a pleasant person during these taper weeks. You’d think that after all that training you could lock it in the bank and let go, but, well, no. It doesn’t work that way at all. During taper weeks the routine you’ve prided yourself on for months has come to an end, your superior scheduling abilities are of no use because there’s an abundance of extra time to not be efficient with, and rather than feeling like the body is repairing it feels like you’re living in an aquarium of wet cement where everything is heavy, and on top of that you’re slow. Like, a sloggy thick molasses slow.
So, imagine my excitement when my coach sent through an article this morning with a note: “…(I feel) the word “taper” shouldn’t be in my vocabulary as..tapering often backfires when carried out in the classical sense. Does that sound interesting?” Um, YES! Article here.
The premise isn’t necessarily that your body doesn’t need to rest, because it does, clearly. But rather than focus on decreased activity, focus on a plan to peak when you need it. In case you’re wondering when that time is, it’s called: RACE DAY. Changing your routine too much it throws the body and mind out of whack. But by changing a little bit, and strategically, you can come out stronger without wasting energy battling and fighting yourself (or so it says!). Run a little less, sleep a little more, think about how all those months of training have prepared you for your day. But don’t decrease mileage by too much or too drastically, don’t decrease turn every run into a jog or recovery run, don’t take extra days off, and don’t worry, because your hard work will pay off.
I think that my favorite piece of advice is the 6th tip: Have fun and smile. The idea being that if you are happy, if your mind is content, you will think positively thus race better. While there’s debate about how to properly physically taper (run? no? fast? slow?), I don’t think anyone could argue with this principle. Training and racing can be stressful, so to be surrounded with happy and calm can only do good things for the body and soul.
I’m not happy-go-lucky when it comes to my training, or anything that I devote myself to for that matter. I love to have fun, but you’ll never see me in costume skipping, running and leaping down the race course with fairy wings and sparkle dust. I work to hard to risk fairy wing chaffing! But for the first time while racing, during my 70.3, I remember smiling. Not because I saw Garth, and not because he had rallied some fans to cheer for me. But all of a sudden I felt my face smile without realizing that my brain had sent the message downwind. And when I realized I was smiling, I smiled some more. My own smile truly did give me energy, and after that race I think I might understand what people mean when they set a goal of having fun during a race. They want to enjoy the experience of the day, they want to feel grateful for being out there, they want to soak in the surrounding athletes, they want to feel confident, put their training to use, and see what they can do.
I’m hoping I get to use this peaking philosophy leading up to the Seattle Half Marathon next month. If so, I certainly plan to report back. And I resolve to find an opportunity to smile while I run it!